People often ask me, “Does the Vice President really matter? Will the debate change anyone’s mind?”
The 2008 Palin-Biden debate was watched by more than 70 million Americans. The vast majority of viewers felt Biden won the debate, although the event was said to have little impact on the overall race. Strangely enough, a CBS News poll found that the Obama-Biden lead actually dropped from 9 to 4 points following the debate, despite the win.
The 2004 Cheney-Kerry debate was viewed by 43.6 million people. Edwards came out strong in the debate and scored high in “likability,” but Florida voters felt Cheney had “clearly won.” Following the debate, Cheney saw a 7 percent increase in voters who thought he was “very qualified” to assume the responsibilities of a president. There was no change for Edwards.
Of the Biden-Ryan clash, Republican Consultant Dan Judy remarks, “It will be entertaining, but I don’t think it is likely to change voters’ minds.”
Yet, according to Gallup, the presidential debates are rarely influential. Only in the 2000 Gore/Bush debate and the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debates did the tide really change. Even so, we still find it necessary to have these debates and to talk about them.
So why would the Vice Presidential debates be any less significant?
Democratic Strategist Steve Elmendorf told The Hill. “As long as neither candidate makes a major gaffe, it will be a non-event.” This goes back to Rule #1 of the Veep Club: DO NO HARM. There will be many viewers tuned in, just waiting for Joe Biden to “say something stupid.” Likewise, there will be viewers on the opposite side of the aisle watching for Paul Ryan to “scare voters away with his extreme ideas on Medicare and taxation.”
While it’s unlikely either well-rehearsed candidate will make a major misstep, this year’s VP debates have great potential to help write the history of our time. Many of the perceptions we have of candidates today were first formed during key debate moments.
For instance, the 1988 VP debate between Democrat Llyod Bentsen and Republican Dan Quayle produced one of the most famous lines uttered on national television. When the youthful and inexperienced Quayle mentioned he had “as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” Bentsen countered with, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” Though Quayle won the #2 spot in the land, the public perception that he was inexperienced, inadequate and less intelligent dogged him throughout his vice presidency.
Another example comes in 1992 when James Stockdale got up on stage and famously quipped, “Who am I? Why am I here?” People failed to understand the philosophical joke he was trying to make and instead viewed him as a crazy crackpot who was barely coherent, let alone prepared to be the nation’s vice president.
Then there was the 1976 vice presidential debate between Bob Dole and Walter Mondale. According to The San Francisco Gate, “Dole’s persona was fixed for years by an over-the-line comment in his vice presidential debate” — when Dole alleged that the wars of this century were attributable to Democrats. Mondale famously countered, “I think that Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight.” Dole tried to make a political comeback years later in a bid for the presidency, but Americans just couldn’t forget his poor debate performance.
Let us not forget the role of a vice president… he’s got big shoes to fill.
Before you go discrediting the vice presidency, consider the words of pundit David Brooks, who reminds us, “In the last five administrations, vice presidents have been powerful. Cheney was obviously powerful. Biden is powerful. Gore was powerful. So these are not meaningless jobs any more. In this day and age, you can’t do that. The vice presidency has its own office, its own staff.” Heaven forbid anything should happen to our Commander-In-Chief, but 13 of our nation’s vice presidents were swiftly promoted to the presidency following the death or resignation of the top dog.
So as you tune in to the VP debate, imagine that one of these men could feasibly become president one day and ask yourself if you’re okay with that. The vice presidents are not up there just espousing the beliefs of their party bosses; they’re also up there auditioning for a greater role in the spotlight. In a 2011 interview with Candy Crowley, Biden said he was not “closing that door,” in reference to running for the presidency in 2016. He added, “I wouldn’t have run for president in the first place—and I don’t think the president would have picked me—unless he thought I’d be good at the job.”