If Joe Biden can put his finger in the dyke then Obama is the (moderate) favorite for the next three weeks. Otherwise: it's gonna look a lot like Romney.
What are the odds?
- Ryan is definitely smart and is probably slick--but he's never been in a debate like this before in his life. On the other hand, neither had Sarah Palin and she did okay--even if her debut was mostly just talking points.
- Biden gets a lot of heat for being, well, dumb. But he's not--and he's proved a reasonably agile debater in the past ("A noun, a verb, 9/11" was his). He is also able to play the role of attack dog and will, likely, be firing at Romney, not Ryan. That's something he didn't get to showcase against Palin because it would look "mean."
- A lot of people will be watching. It's true that almost no one votes "the bottom of the ticket" (except for all those people voting Palin in '08, yeah?) and the conventional wisdom says "debates don't matter." Yeah, right--a lot of people will be tuned in and what gets said here probably does matter. Probably. One thing is for sure: Team Obama won't be phoning it in this time if they want a shot at a second term.
Here are five charts about the debates:
- 70 MM people watched Palin-Biden. That's about what watched Romney-Obama last week. That's a big market share.
- Most voters think Ryan has an edge (that's HUGE with Republicans--but moderate with Independents).
- They say the debates don't matter (there's a Gallup poll) but, um, with the biggest change being 3pts (huge in today's race) even a 1-2 point shift would be very meaningful. I say the debates do matter.
- People think Biden sucks. His un-faves are much higher than '08 and higher than ROmney's.
- Top search terms: For Biden "Ryan" for Ryan "Stench" (this is because of a 'satirical' Poltico piece that claimed Ryan was referring to Romney as "The Stench"--not true--but it went viral)
There are a couple of possible strategies that Biden can employ and fewer that Ryan can use.
Ryan Strategy: Look Moderate But Not TOO Moderate
Ryan is a hard core conservative. He's anti-abortion in cases of rape. he's called social security a ponzi scheme. His original plan did put current seniors on vouchers before that plan was thrown "off a cliff." He supports a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage So, okay: he's conservative--but what he has to do is look a little more moderate ("Romney Moderate") while still serving talking points for the right. He's their guy--the guy who will keep Mitt in line--so he can't flop over to the left side of the line--but he does need to soften things.
After that, he just needs to look smarter than Joe Biden and Obama put together. After last weeks debate this will not be too hard. He can credibly project that some hard choices have to be made and that his group is the one to make them. If he can do this, un-opposed--sell Romney as moderate while he looks like a credible potential culture warrior.
Biden Strategy 1: Pin The Etch-A-Sketch On The Romney
If Joe Biden is smart he will ignore almost everything Ryan says and go directly after Romney. His best way to do that is to contrast what Romney said in the beginning of the campaign with what he said, say, last week. Pre-existing conditions? Abortion on the platform? Etc. If he goes out there and hammers out the Romney-Has-Shifted message in a convincing way we can call that a win if he doesn't otherwise get demolished.
Biden Strategy 2: Attack Ayn Rand
Ryan is (or at least has claimed to be) a disciple of Ayn Rand. Whether he qualifies as ideologically pure enough--or is carrying that standard right now (he's not)--is unimportant: there are elements of this philosophy, like his budget and his initial medicare solution that are not popular. Having shifted stances to make them more popular may not comfort people if they believe that Romney will be hard-right (severely conservative) as a president. Using Ryan as a proxy-stand in could create doubt.
What Do I Think?
I think the collection of low expectations for Biden and the fact that he's generally underrated as an attack dog make for a possibly explosive combination. Ryan is good--but this is more of Biden's wheelhouse. So I think Biden has a small edge. But it's anyone's game and we should expect the unexpected.