As the 2012 presidential campaign enters its final weeks, voters will see the vice presidential candidates spar about domestic and foreign policy issues. Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Congressman Paul Ryan face off this Thursday in their only debate. Throughout the campaign, the running mates served as surrogates for the presidential candidates, but this week the focus will be squarely on them. What kind of performance can we expect from the candidates, and will the debate have a significant impact on the outcome in November? Does the vice presidential debate even matter?
On October 10, Brookings expert Elisabeth Jacobs responded to questions and comments in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO.
12:30 Vivyan Tran: Welcome everyone, let’s get started.
12:30 Elisabeth Jacobs: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining me today!
12:30 Comment from Jesse: Did last week’s jobs numbers help Obama recover from the first debate? How can Biden use them tonight to make more progress in the polls for the Obama-Biden campaign?
12:33 Elisabeth Jacobs: Last week’s job numbers definitely opened up a window for the Obama campaign to clarify their messaging around the economy and the recovery, and VP Biden has a chance to do that in the debate tomorrow night. Governor Romney (and Rep. Ryan) has been hammering the Administration on the fact that the unemployment rate has been 8% or higher since Obama took office, for instance, and now that’s no longer the case. It’s a simple psychological point, maybe, but a potentially significant one. The Administration has had a tough time convincing the public that the recovery is real, and that their policies have made a difference. Last week’s jobs numbers help make that case more clearly, and Biden has a chance to really amplify that message tomorrow night.
12:34 Comment from Sarah: I’ll ask the most obvious – does the VP debate matter?
12:37 Elisabeth Jacobs: That’s a great question. The simple answer is probably a flat-out “no,” although it sure doesn’t feel that way given the media attention given to debates! The consensus amongst political scientists is that debates—not just VP debates, but presidential debates, too—just don’t change election outcomes. Debates can change the polls, but typically not in a fundamental way that decides the election. All that said, I do have a few caveats. First, just because debates haven’t “mattered” (in the sense of deciding election outcomes) in the past doesn’t mean that they won’t ever matter in the future. This year could somehow be the anomaly! But that’s unlikely, and it’s certainly not likely that the VP debate will be the deciding event. Second, just because debates don’t decide election outcomes doesn’t mean they don’t matter. They’re a key opportunity for political ideals and policy ideas to be front-and-center in the public dialogue, and they give candidates an opportunity to spell out what they’re all about. So they’re an important part of American democracy, even if they don’t decide the winner.
12:38 Comment from Jon: What mistakes did Obama make that Biden can learn from?
12:44 Elisabeth Jacobs: President Obama made a few mistakes in his debate against Governor Romney that Vice President Biden is likely to learn from, I think.
First, President Obama’s apparent strategy of trying to stay “presidential”—cool, calm, collected—came off to many viewers (or pundits, at a minimum) as boredom, disengagement, and condescension. Biden will want to avoid that, and he’ll likely work hard to really connect with viewers. This is likely to be easier for Biden than it was for Obama for a few reasons. First, he’s not the president—he’s the VP. So he doesn’t face the same challenge of maintaining his official “face.” Second, he’s got a reputation for being a friendly, warm guy, so he’s likely to build off of that to connect with viewers in a meaningful way. Finally, it’s worth noting that several media sites just prior to the Presidential debate had started hammering on President Obama as an “angry black man.” President Obama had to be very careful not to seem like the caricature that some corners of the media had presented him to be, and he may have over-corrected here. VP Biden just doesn’t face the same challenges.
Second, President Obama just didn’t hit back aggressively against the new “Moderate Mitt” that showed up at the debate. He missed numerous opportunities to point out half-truths (or flat-out misstatements/lies) in Romney’s statements, especially on issues like health care, Medicare, and taxes. It almost seems as though he was so taken aback by Romney’s new persona that he wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Biden is likely to have learned his lesson and prepped for this—he’s likely to be deeply versed in policy details and ready to call Paul Ryan out on inconsistencies, untruths, half-truths, and the like.
12:45 Comment from Ben: The first presidential debate seemed to focus heavily on taxes, economy and health care. Are there other issues you think the VP candidates will focus on tomorrow?
12:49 Elisabeth Jacobs: I think the candidates are likely to focus on the issues you’ve mentioned in tomorrow’s debate—taxes, the economy, health care—given how central they are in voters’ minds. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Biden bring up foreign policy, given his historic strength in this area (and Ryan’s relative weakness). I also would look for Biden to bring up women’s issues —an area that was essentially absent from last week’s presidential debate, but one that is quite strong for Democrats. Biden has a strong history here—he is the father of the Violence Against Women Act, for instance. And Ryan’s extremism on women’s health issues, including reproductive rights, is a galvanizing issue for Democrats. Given that the post-debate polls show Romney closing the gender gap amongst voters, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Biden reminding women of all of the reasons why they were supporting the Democrats in such strong numbers prior to the debate. Finally, I’m sure that Ryan will hammer the deficit, given his strong history in tackling this issue.
12:49 Comment from Rosslyn: If you were Joe Biden, what would be your ultimate goal for tonight? Paul Ryan?
12:54 Elisabeth Jacobs: The most important thing both candidates can do is not screw up. It’s really as simple as that. The only way that the VP debate is likely to *really* matter is if one of the two candidates makes a major gaffe.
Of course, both campaigns likely have substantive goals for the VP contenders. Biden is likely to work hard to communicate a clear message from the Administration, one that clarifies their economic vision and emphasizes shared prosperity and a bright future for the middle class. He’s likely to work hard to illustrate the inconsistencies and half-truths peddled by his opponents, and to highlight how their agenda balances the economy on the back of the middle class and the poor in service of the wealthy. He’s also likely to try hard to charm the “average Joe,” and we’ll almost certainly hear a story about a “little boy named Joey from Scranton, PA.”
Ryan is likely to try to goad Biden into making one of his classic gaffes—everyone in America who has been paying attention for the last four years knows that Biden is prone to making Onion-worthy comments when he’s speaking off-the cuff. But he’s also likely to try to make a case for his party as the responsible party of efficient, small government. He’s likely to paint the Administration as ineffective, and to downplay the recovery and magnify the nation’s sustained economic challenges.
12:55 Comment from Craig: Everyone’s expecting Biden to make a big gaffe. Do you think he’ll embrace that perception and let his personality fly? Or will he try to tone it down and be more professional?
12:57 Elisabeth Jacobs: That’s a great question—and it’s hard to know! Joe Biden is a smart guy, and so is Paul Ryan. Biden’s main task is to make clear that he’s a serious man, and I think there are ways of having it both ways. He can be charming, and also smart. Kind of a like a respected but wise-cracking grandfather figure, maybe?
12:57 Comment from Guest: Polling shows recently that Obama is losing ground to Romney on the issue of Medicare. Do you think that will motivate Biden to hammer Ryan harder on his Medicare plan or skirt the issue?
1:02 Elisabeth Jacobs: Romney has attacked President Obama for cutting $700 billion from Medicare through cost-savings. Yet Ryan has embraced exactly this policy, and that position is well-documented and on-the-record. I think Biden is likely to hammer home this inconsistency in the Romney/Ryan playbook. He’ll clarify that those cost-savings are simple efficiencies with bi-partisan consensus, and they won’t impact seniors’ access to health insurance or health care. And he’ll point out that the Romney/Ryan plan to voucherize/privatize Medicare would take away guaranteed health insurance for the nation’s seniors—anyone over 55, according to their campaign.
All of this is a long way of saying that I think Biden would be missing an opportunity if he didn’t attack Ryan on Medicare. The Obama campaign has lots to gain based on the facts here.
1:02: Elisabeth Jacobs: Thanks so much for joining me today. I’ll be live-tweeting tomorrow night’s debate, and you can follow me on Twitter at @jacobselisabeth.
1:02 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the questions everyone. See you next week.