VP Debate Instant Reaction

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left, responds to a question during the debate with Republican presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, right, at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008. (AP Photo/Rick Wilking, Pool) Neil Buchanan observed earlier today that his years of coaching national championship debate teams has spoiled American political “debates” for him.  Similarly, years of studying politics and watching political campaigns makes it very difficult for me to analyze these things as other than a wonk.

Joe Biden was about average tonight, hitting the talking points in a way that was far from seamless while Sarah Palin was worse than most, making some attempts like “Say it ain’t so, Joe” at delivering canned lines that made me cringe.  She was by no means awful but she struck me as someone obviously looking for her mark.  She struck me as rather corny, if not goofy, at times whereas Biden struck me as much more bland than usual. At the same time, though, she didn’t come across as a nitwit.

Watching the debate on CNN, which had dials of undecided voters divided by  gender, it appears that “ordinary voters” saw it differently.   My wife noted that men generally seemed not to like Biden much and Palin was mostly above the line with both men and women.

The most poignant moment of the evening was Biden’s talking about the tragic accident which took his wife and daughter and the struggle of being a single dad.   Palin missed an opportunity to share a human  moment after that, immediately going into chipper line recitation mode.

Overall, if this were a collegiate debate scored on points by trained judges, Biden was the winner.   Then again, if that were the case, Al Gore would have won the first debate in 2000.   We’ll see how  the American people view it over the next couple of days.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, Frank Luntz’ focus group on Fox News, comprised half of people who said they are undecided and voted for Bush in 2004 and another half who voted for Kerry, almost universally liked Palin’s performance. Luntz thinks “we’re going to see a shift” in the direction of McCain as a result of this debate.

Brit Hume, obviously pro-McCain, observed that we pundits tend to “emphasize command of the issues and fluidity” whereas voters tend to look for personal connection. He’s no doubt right on that.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. To demonstrate my fairmindedness, let me say right away. Gov. Palin did a very solid job tonight. She was crisp in her responses and provided solid answers to most questions.

    Looked completely different than she did with Couric and Gibson.

  2. anjin-san says:

    Palin did reasonably well. No deer in the headlights moments. The smirkeyness got old to me and she has a tendency to talk a lot and not answer the question.

    Still not a bad job. She certainly did little or nothing to hurt McCain, but will did she do anything to help him? Time will tell. The clock is running down, and McCain is losing.

  3. Neil1030 says:

    Based on most of the analysis I’m hearing, Palin seems to have “won.” She certainly held her own and exceeded the low expectations. I thought she sounded quite knowledgeable at times but was a little too perky on some lines and almost did not sound serious.

    Most of all, I was disappointed, as I was with McCain last week, that she was not partisan enough. I wanted to hear her trash the Democrat congress and the Dems who fought against reforming the financial system when they had the chance years ago. There were 100 other things I wish she had said. But she seemed to be successful with her performance so I guess she got it done.

  4. just me says:

    I think she came across much better in the debates than in her interviews. I think she was more comfortable in this format, but I think some of the problem with the interviews is she was wary of the gotcha moment. She didn’t seem so wary tonight.

    i thought Biden was boring. I also think at times he was rather incoherent. Palin sometimes did a little too much BSing-it wasn’t that she said it poorly, she just didn’t say anything substantive.

    I think where she looked weakest is that she didn’t seem to have a good response for Biden’s “McCain said . . .” moments. But I got tired of his using McCain’s vote against an amendment as if it was a vote against a bill-two very different things. I was curious because I don’t remember what bill the amendment was attached to.

    Biden seemed most comfortable talking about foreign policy, Palin seemed most uncomfortable with this. Palin was very good on energy, and I thought Biden didn’t do so well on this. He also was terrible on his global warming answer, because he didn’t seem to actually know McCain’s position on the issue.

    Her bar was really low, because she has been painted into the idiot corner, so she wins. But in general I think substantively it was still pretty much a draw-he was better on some things, she was better on others.

    I got very tired of the word “Maverick” and I don’t care for the informal use of the first names to refer to the candidates-something that grated on my nerves even more during the McCain/Obama debate when McCain referred to Obama as senator but Obama called him John and Tom.

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Neil must not have watched the same debate I did. Biden looked strained at times. When Palin trapped him on his vote for the war then as a VP candidate opposes the war with no explaination. Stating she does not understand Washington insiders who seem to be for something before they are against it. Biden did not take that well. By the way, anyone watch Franks on O’Rielly? He denied what he clearly said on a video of a speech he made in 2005. Lying in the face of truth is a liberal fault. Fortunately only liberals believe such BS. Vote Ayers/Obama 08

  6. anjin-san says:

    Palin stemmed the bleeding in terms of her own credibility. But that does nothing to change the dynamic of the election, which is quickly shifting in favor of Obama.

    Early polling suggests a Biden win. If that trend holds, it is a body blow to McCain. McCain is getting shredded for bailing in Michigan. So does he take the heat from his own party, or does he reverse course and add fuel to the argument that he is Captain Erratic?

  7. CJE says:

    Governor Palin did an impressive job. The debate is not, as the writer suggests, scored by “points.” I don’t doubt that Palin galvanized her staunch supporters by her performance but probably more important is that she persuaded people like me that she’s a capable person. She seemed very in control and “vice-presidential” which were my main concerns about her. I now realize that these were false based on the misleading clips shown by Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. I say misleading because it’s clear that her abilities in fact are not what Gibson or Couric led us to believe. I suspect she connected with a lot of undecided voters. No, the writer of the article, it’s not about ivy league debate points, it’s about reaching the voters.

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    If you believe Biden won that debate, Anjin, once again we watched different debates. CNN polls will be overrun with Obamites trying to show a false lead. Governor Palin made contact with America this evening. Now you know how she won the State House in Alaska.

  9. Instant polls are problematic, of course, but so far showing clear Biden wins. Both CNN and CBS polls showing that.

    That said, Palin’s credible performance will help stop the bleeding of McCain support, and will be helped in that regard by a predictable regression to the mean — Obama’s recent numbers were probably unsustainably high.

    The key outcome is that McCain remains alive to continue the fight, and given the potential downsides here, I am sure they are cracking open the champagne at McCain HQ.

  10. Andrea says:

    Governer Palin did an impressive job if by impressive, you mean she did not drool all over herself. She failed to answer the moderators questions on a number of occasions, taking it back to energy, the only subject she knows anything about. The fact that McCain even put her on the ticket is an insult to the American people.

    To those of you saying that Couric and Gibson were playing gotcha politics in previous interviews, I’m sorry, but use some common sense. There is a certain baseline of information that you need in order to do any job. For example, you most likely would prefer for your doctor to have some familiarity with human anatomy. If you are having open heart surgery, you want your heart specialist to recognize if your brain functions go haywire because that underlying knowledge of how the body functions is necessary. Likewise, if Sarah Palin does not understand basics of the current administrations approach to problems or know anything about supreme court decisions, she is wholly unqualified.

  11. Senator Biden is very smooth saying the most outlandish things that just aren’t true. Governor Palin is a little out of her depth, but she is honest and earnest.

    I’ll go with honest and earnest over smug and delusional. And is that some bad plastic surgery or what?

  12. Anjin-san is just reading off the same script as the AP which wrote about the debate in the past tense before it happened.

  13. Charles:

    Go ahead… with actual citations… list Biden’s outlandish statements.

  14. C-Redd says:

    Anyone thinking Palin won was not watching the same debate I was. She sounded very folksy and was very cute, but those are not presidential qualities that I look for. She dodged most of the questions and had no specific details regarding anything. When she tried to use specifics she got them wrong.

    Biden use very specific details everytime he spoke and had a commanding knowledge on every issue. The only “points” she scored were regarding Biden’s support of the Iraq War.

    She may have cleared the bar set by the interviews, but she didn’t measure up to what I expect in a high official of the American Government.

  15. Mario Mirarchi says:

    I only the the last 10 minutes, but having seen some of the highlights, it appears to be a case Palin stealing the show rather than winning. She did sound canned, but she was passionate and enthusiastic.

  16. jim says:

    James time to change the name of the blog, you are totally an inside the beltway person. A few thoughts to you and some of the others leaving comments: debates in this context are not about policy—never were and never will be; if you thought that Gov. Palin didn’t come across well perhaps party affiliation is interfering with your judgment or you really have something against women in govt; the complaint of not answering the stated questions is common to all losers and you and others set the bar so low you cannot come back in and try to raise it now.

  17. anjin-san says:

    Luntz thinks “we’re going to see a shift” in the direction of McCain as a result of this debate.

    Got a yard I will bet against that one…

  18. just me says:

    Senator Biden is very smooth saying the most outlandish things that just aren’t true. Governor Palin is a little out of her depth, but she is honest and earnest.

    I’ll go with honest and earnest over smug and delusional. And is that some bad plastic surgery or what?

    Good points, and I agree. Biden still came across to me as a grumpy old man, which I thought was supposed to be McCain’s role in the this election.

    As for Biden gaffes here are a few off the top of my head that I caught in the debate:

    Biden lying about his clean coal comment (I watched the video)
    Biden lying about Obama’s statement regarding talks with Iran and other dictators without preconditions.
    Biden’s back track, non answer about his vote in favor of the war.
    Biden’s answer about the role of the VP (Palin’s answer on this was also a non answer, but at least she has the excuse of not declaring herself a genius and isn’t a constitutional law scholar).

    Also, I didn’t fact check this one, but there was a link elsewhere:

    Biden made the claim several times that we spend more money in a month in Iraq than we have spent in Afghanistan for seven years. He was way off, and he made this claim more than once.

    Those are the ones I either caught or saw immediately-I am willing to bet there are more.

    I am also willing to bet the MSM doesn’t cover any of them.

  19. legion says:

    From the reactions I’ve seen, this appears to have been taken as a rather “meh” debate – neither side really scored big against or altered the other side’s (or the undecideds’) opinions about each other. And that’s really what Palin needed to do moreso than Biden: change people’s opinions. She didn’t seem to do that, and that’s why I think she came out on the short end tonight.

  20. a says:
  21. just me says:

    Okay I take back the Bosniaks, but in my defense I live in a city with a very large population of Bosnian refugees, and none of them have ever referred to themselves as “Bosniaks.”

    So I wonder which term is actually the more common, the wiki doesn’t actually say.

  22. Brett says:

    I think Biden did quite well. He didn’t come across as condescending (which I’m positive was a challenge for him at times), and he generally was both good and specific on most issues (not to mention that he actually stayed on topic most of the time, unlike Palin). He was only “boring” if your definition of a good debate is on how good the candidate smiled and got off bad one-liners.

    Palin was both smooth and smiling, but only “good” if (as an earlier poster pointed out) you judge her by the ridiculously low expectations she was facing going in. Half of the time she was completely off-topic; she even went out and said that she wouldn’t respond to questions, instead saying what she want. Several times she had the “deer in the headlights” look, and what she then proceeded to say sounded like a hashed quip that she’s been memorizing for three days (like the “Say-it-aint-so-Joe-there-you-go-again!” or “You’re raising the White Flag of Surrender!”). By any standard other than looking photogenic, she lost badly.

    Whether or not that will reflect in the polls is another question. I’ll wait and see what they say a day out from now, but I doubt it will be a real game-changer. Most likely, the Style-Over-Substance people will still go for her on the Conservative side, liberals will laugh, and independents will do what they usually do and do nothing until election day.

  23. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Anjin, I will match that bet and raise it ten fold. Got the balls?

  24. anjin-san says:

    How is Gen. McClellan doing in Afghanistan tonight, I wonder. Will the Army of the Potomac be marching south soon?

  25. Brian says:

    Governor Palin made contact with America this evening.

    Huh? Don’t presume to talk on behalf of America. That’s Palin’s job!

  26. davod says:

    “The smirkeyness got old to me”

    By this I take it that you mean Biden doing a Gore while Palin was speaking.

    “(not to mention that he actually stayed on topic most of the time, unlike Palin).”

    Palin had to go off topic because “The Ones’s” acolyte did not ask any questions about energy or abortion.

    “Biden use very specific details every time he spoke and had a commanding knowledge on every issue. The only “points” she scored were regarding Baden’s support of the Iraq War.”

    I suppose Palin was showing her ignorance by not correcting Biden on the many lies he told.

  27. Chris says:

    “well, y’know, if ya talk to moms at a soccer game…etc etc.” Bleugh. “Wall Street’s goin’ crazy, you gotta…reel ’em in I guess.” Very specific solution to some of the countries financial problems there.

    Both Palin and Biden were doing it, deliberately talking monosyllabically and going with populist generalisations. I know all presidential and vice-presidential candidates do it to some extent, but this was schmaltzier than anything I’ve ever seen, schmaltzier than Bill Clinton.

  28. Chris says:

    I’m sorry, but use some common sense. There is a certain baseline of information that you need in order to do any job. For example, you most likely would prefer for your doctor to have some familiarity with human anatomy.

    Posted by Andrea

    Nope, I dont want my doctor to have a basic knowledge of anatomy, I want a doctor I can have a beer with, a ‘guy like me’.

    “Doctor, I’m coughing blood”

    “Ah, well, y’know, I was talkin’ to this guy, just lost his job, 3 kids, y’know, regular guy, if you talk to soccer moms, they’d tell ya, you’re prob’ly sick.”

    “Yes. What specifically is wrong with me?”

    “We gotta, we gotta cure you, get you back on track, and all you need is belief! There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be cured by what’s right with you!”

    “Oh god.”

  29. just me says:

    I think the problem with the doctor analogy is that it seems to assume that Palin is a nitwit, except she has done well as mayor and governor.

    I think we expect her to have a knowledge base that she may not have. I don’t expect her to talk like a policy wonk. She talked well about the things she did know and has experience with.

    Her answer to the VP and the consitutional role was pretty bad, but Biden’s was worse and he is a lawyer and should make sense. And his answer about his position on the judicial committee and helping to coin the word Bork is something he is proud of? How do you use that as your “proud” moment when running on the promise to be bipartisan? Although I don’t think anyone except maybe those in the mushy middle really think Obama will be Mr. Bipartisan.

  30. rodney dill says:

    Both candidates were solid in performance, though I just read the 14 lies that Biden told during the debate, unfortunately the fact checking has to be done after the debate.

    There was no knock out punch, on either side, but after all, experience wise, Palin was up against the person that should be at the top of the Democrat ticket.

  31. rodney dill says:
  32. davod says:

    In Biden’s case, you would feel comforted even though he lied to you about the diagnosis.

  33. twiddletwaddle says:

    James time to change the name of the blog, you are totally an inside the beltway person.

    I had the very same thought.

  34. Davebo says:

    Gosh darndet! I just feel safer with a female Opey in the White House.

  35. rodney dill says:

    Gosh darndet! I just feel safer with a female Opey in the White House.

    Hadn’t you heard? Hillary’s out of the race.

  36. Patrick T McGuire says:

    Instant polls are problematic, of course, but so far showing clear Biden wins. Both CNN and CBS polls showing that.

    It depends on which polls you look at I suppose.



    29% 83,505

    69% 196,634

    2% 4,786

    Total Votes: 284,925

  37. Steve Plunk says:


    Why mention Brit Hume is for John McCain? Is there evidence of that? Do you mention that other journalists are for Barak Obama?

  38. James Joyner says:

    Why mention Brit Hume is for John McCain? Is there evidence of that?

    He puts on his pundit hat on Sunday mornings and he makes it clear that he’s for the Republican. He doesn’t hide that. I think he’s a solid, well respected journalist but he doesn’t pretend to be neutral.

  39. Independent, not undecided says:

    It’s refreshing to see someone approach politics with open eyes and a certain amount of fairness (haven’t read that much here yet, but that’s my initial response) – the attitude I see so often on both sides is that their candidate is wholly flawless and the other candidate is wholly evil, and it’s getting this country nowhere.

    (Stumbled across your blog the other day and was really pleased to find a conservative viewpoint that didn’t sound like it was written by a conspiracy theorist with a persecution complex.)

  40. jim says:

    That was a nice try with the physician analogy. Apparently some people do what the purported smartest guy in the room. [Remember the current financial crisis was brought on by the smartest guys in the room.] However, we are talking about the president as leader and leadership and the ability to recall facts are not always perfectly correlated.

  41. CJE says:

    I read the comments over the weekend, and thought that I’d provide an update on the drudge poll:


    BIDEN 28% 154,668
    PALIN 70% 382,694
    NEITHER 2% 10,203
    Total Votes: 547,565


    By the way, I find Joyner’s article above to be a typical biased report of the debate, meaning whether intentional or not, he shows clear political leanings.

    If you are truly able to look neutrally at the two candidates, when you read his article your notice that he is leaning a certain way when he says:

    (a) he refers to Brit Hume, as “obviously pro-McCain” – rather than just as a news anchor for Fox News – he wants the reader to interpet what Mr. Hume says with that frame of reference – imagine if you heard someone speak of Matt Lauer as obviously pro-Obama, or Katie Couric as obviously anti-Palin.

    (b)he refers POSITIVELY to the most poignant moment of the debate as Biden’s reference to a personal tragic accident in his life and then immediately he NEGATIVELY refers to Palin’s missing an opportunity to “share a human moment after that.” Options for Mr. Joyner could have been:

    (i) to mention positively that Palin shared that many members of her family are teachers like Biden’s wife;
    (ii) mention a separate point raised by Palin positively;
    (iii) or how about, just not mention Palin negatively at all?!

    (c) the author attempts to degrade a poll by Frank Luntz that said that most undecided viewers thought Palin won the debate, by prefacing this fact by saying “for what it’s worth” rather than stating it without bias as a fact or by leading his article with that poll.

    These are just a FEW of the indicators that show the biased direction that Joyner writes. IF YOU ARE ATTEMPTING TO READ UNBIASED REPORTS(and this goes for whether republican or democrat) you should be able to see that, to use his own word “obviously” that he writes with a bias.

    I think I’d have more respect for the article if he started it off by saying something like “For what it’s worth, I think Biden won the debate, however, I must admit that I really like Biden.”

    One last point, almost everyone has some view on the Biden-Palin debate, BUT a reporter or blogger or whatever(especially a writer!) knows how to remove his or her own views from an article. When you see such views, it’s because they don’t care or they’re so staunchly of the view that they can’t see the other side.