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Q&A with Dr. Bill Rosenberg: Vice-Presidential Debate

October 17, 2012

vice-presidential debate

DrexelNow spoke with political analyst and professor Dr. Bill Rosenberg at the beginning of October about the first presidential debate. Rosenberg was available again to discuss the vice presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan, moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News. Rosenberg comments on how each candidate performed, whether their performances met or exceeded expectations, and if the debate will affect the public’s perception of each platform. Keep an eye out for further discussions with Rosenberg later this month, as we assess the total impact of these debates.

Who “won” the vice presidential debate?

Who you are determines who you thought won last night’s debate. The expectation was that Paul Ryan would win, but the actual debate basically pitted two rivals against each other who were much more aggressive than Romney and Obama were with each other. Democrats were much more comfortable with the responses this time and with the approach that Joe Biden took. Ryan, on the other hand, was basically in a position where he was trying to make his own points, while under attack by Biden. He also had to show that he is capable of being a vice president. It was sort of a boxing match; for example, Ryan made an assertion about the stimulus plan not being a good idea, and Biden came back and asked why, if he felt that, he would request stimulus money for improving the economy in his district. When Ryan went on the assault against Biden and Obama, Biden would respond with factual statements.

Did each candidate perform as he was expected to?

Expectations were higher for Ryan to do well. Many people were concerned about the debate—Democrats were less concerned that Ryan had the winning arguments and more that Biden sometimes has gaffes in terms of making statements. As it turns out, while Biden has made some gaffes on the campaign trail, he’s very disciplined in debates. This was true in 2008 as well, when he debated Sarah Palin.

The question is whether they met or exceeded expectations. I think Obama/Biden supporters think that Biden did a tremendous job. Romney/Ryan supporters do not agree. A CBS snap poll taken right after the debate shows that undecided voters think Biden clearly won. At the same time, a CNN poll favored Ryan over Biden. Because these two responses are inconsistent, it raises some questions about who answered the surveys. The bottom line is, both sides have their strengths and weaknesses and distinct personalities. All of this gets interpreted by the competing parties, the media and voters.

Ultimately, one would assume that the people who were going to vote for Obama/Biden will still do so and the people who were going to vote for Romney/Ryan will still vote for their team. The independents went much more for Obama/Biden according to the immediate CBS snap poll. However, one of those two surveys—CNN or CBS-- probably produced an inaccurate result. The perspective you get depends a lot upon which media source you follow; the advantage of watching for yourself is that it allows you to make your own determinations of who won.

When we spoke about your predictions for this debate, you mentioned that Paul Ryan might have a difficult time operating in the “box” the Romney campaign has put him in. Did this come through in the debate?

I think Ryan did a very good job in terms of speaking from the Romney/Ryan campaign perspective rather than his own personal beliefs about issues dealing with budgets, taxation or Medicare. Ryan’s responses presented the Romney perspective.

Interestingly, for as aggressive as Biden was, he didn’t focus on the differences between Romney’s and Ryan’s decisions. I think there was an opportunity there for Biden to exploit those differences, and he didn’t take it. For example, when Ryan was asked the question about abortion, he gave the Romney campaign’s position. That was a very telling moment in the debate; the moderator asked if people who are pro-choice have anything to fear, and Ryan responded with a short pause, then a sigh, but not the word “no.” He then explained the Romney/Ryan position-- that abortion issues should be decided by legislators, not judges. If he wanted to calm the fears of pro-choice voters, he didn’t do it with that statement, but he was trying to be true to his beliefs in his answer.

Do you think the moderator balanced the discussion, keeping the candidates on task and on time?

Martha Raddatz did a very good job; many of the questions that she was asking were specifically in her wheelhouse, since she often deals with foreign affairs issues. She’s very knowledgeable about these issues and knew appropriate follow up questions to ask. Plus, because of the way the debate was structured, she was able to keep the topic in focus while asking new questions to prevent the candidates from talking for too long.
The nature of the physical environment affected the conversation as well. Both candidates were sitting at a table with the moderator, and I think that produced a more engaged sort of debate.

The first presidential debate seemed to have a big impact on how the public views the candidates and the election as a whole. Were there any important perspectives that came out of the vice presidential debate?

I think for many Obama supporters it was a sigh of relief—a sign that the momentum may have turned. For most Republicans, Ryan met the standard. Biden seemed to be very much in control of the debate pace—whether you agree or disagree with what he said, he was very dominant throughout the discussion.

There was a truly dramatic moment when Biden stated that the U.S. military would be out of Afghanistan by 2014. When Ryan was pressed on this issue, he didn’t want to be so concrete about the timeframe. He agreed that 2014 would be a good time, but wouldn’t guarantee that all troops would be out. This is one fundamental difference between the candidates-- Obama and Biden are saying this is the date we’re leaving, and Romney and Ryan are taking the position that they want to leave by then, but a definite exit date will have to be determined by what’s happening on the ground at that time.

Another area of significant difference had to do with Social Security and Medicare. Those issues were also dramatic in the sense that Biden made it very clear that Republicans have never been big supporters of either program, even from their inception. Biden was trying to show that Romney and Ryan were likely to have been aware that their proposed voucher program may not cover the full cost of medical coverage for seniors. Biden turned to the camera and directly appealed to seniors on this issue. Ultimately, this debate set us up for the remaining presidential debates. In 2004, George W. Bush did not perform well in the first presidential debate against John Kerry and went on to win the election. My sense is that this will be a very close election, and every vote will matter.