Friday, October 12, 2012

VP Aftermath

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Just Kiss Already!
Let's start with the (mostly) uncontested facts.

  1. Biden talked over / interrupted Ryan a lot. One estimate is 82 times--that's almost once per minute.
  2. Neither man had a melt-down on stage. No one got flustered and there were (probably) no major gaffes on either man's part (Biden's assertion about not being asked for more security in Libya may count--but it may also just be a falsehood--something hardly atypical in this campaign).
  3. Biden made sure to hit all his talking points. The 47% came up (twice). He went after the original Ryan medicare plan. His dial was set all the way to offense from the very start and he pretty much never backed off.
  4. The polls show a split: CBS gave it to Biden by a large margin. CNN gave it to Ryan by a small amount. There are others. The Daily Kos has a list of links.
  5. The betting markets move about 1.5% in Obama's favor. PoliticIT--an Internet Approval Score--says that Obama's score went up .61 and Romney's fell .63 during the debate.The RAND presidential poll for today is not out yet--but as of last night (not sure when it comes in) Romney fell about .15% in the predicted to win score. Almost nothing--but a faint shift.
Somewhat more controversial:
  1. Biden dominated the format. Possibly due to experience or belligerence--but whatever the case he was substantially more effective and aggressive at getting his message out there than Ryan. This isn't to say that Ryan didn't make his case--but he was in Biden's shadow much the same way Obama was in Romney's last week.
  2. Biden knew exactly what he had to do and executed on it: he was there to re-fire the Democratic base. His body language strategy was to smile in pure disdainful disbelief every time Ryan made a "contested" statement (what the Democratic base would call "a lie") and then, if possible, verbally rebut it--he did both--consistently to such a degree that it probably turned off lower information / undecided voters who may not be aware of the position Democrats have on Ryan. Nevertheless: Biden, like Romney in the first debate, came out with a target in mind and hit it squarely.
  3. The moderation was an improvement. This is highly contested by some on the right--including the supposition that the final abortion question was part of a coordinated media conspiracy to revive the War on Women meme. That said, while Martha Raddatz did not shut down Biden for interrupting, the questions were reasonable, mostly unbiased, and the debate was substantial and each man got state / defend their position. It was not merely dueling talking points or press releases.
What Does It Mean?
Here are a few things it means:
  1. Biden has a shot at a 2016 run for president. It's not the long-shot it was a few days ago: saving the party's morale (if nothing else) counts for a lot.
  2. Professor Sam Wang of Princeton Electoral Consortium wisely notes that whatever happens next polling wise, Biden will get credit for it.This may be a bit like the rooster getting credit for the sun rise.
  3. Here's the main one: Biden successfully test-fired his team's response to Romney's positioning shift. Let me explain that.
During the primaries and thereafter Romney has said a bunch of things that, whether he really-and-truly believes them or not, will not be popular in the general (where we are now). Things about immigration (support for Arizona's show-your-papers law and knocking down the DREAM Act), things about abortion, things about medicare (he did say he would sign Ryan's original vouchers-for-all plan), and so on. 

During the last debate and thereafter he has shifted to a more moderate position. This is something all politicians do and while it is notable in the specifics, as a general element of campaigns it does not make Romney any more of a liar than any other politician. The infamous Fehrnstrom Etch-a-Sketch gaffe was all about this. If you don't see that, you're kidding yourself.

So the meaningful question is this: can Team Obama successfully (A) issue concise, clear, and credible messaging around Romney's original position and (B) can they then contrast this to the Romney-Ryan current position. This is effectively calling them liars without just going "you lie!" (which is not really a winning strategy). 

Ryan can present Team-Romney talking points as well as anyone alive and can defend them better than most: in order for Biden to execute the rebuttal strategy without either over-explaining or over-extending themselves requires a pretty well managed attack. Biden did manage the attack and managed it effectively (says I). This is not to say he did it convincingly: that will be up to each individual viewer.

I think it is fair to say, however, that Biden's coaching allowed him to address the question, clearly state the original Romney position, and then contrast it to what is being said now. If Obama can do this in the next debate it should make it substantially harder to convince first-time-viewers that Romney is entirely sincere. Yes, Romney came off very well (and he does have the advantage that he may well be pretty moderate at heart--who knows)--but in the age of YouTube and Google it will not take much to bring up the original primary-Romney positions. 

Biden test-fired the strategy and I would say it launched fairly effectively. He may well have overdone it with the eye-rolling and aggressive contemptuous smiling--but he managed the all-important clarity and brevity necessary to make the approach work.

What Do I Think?
I think that if Romney can't figure out a loophole to propose closing by next Tuesday it's going to be silly. I would say Biden "won" the debate on four counts:
  1. Biden steam-rolled Ryan. Yes, it was rude--and maybe it hurt him--but Romney was aggressive in the first debate and the right-wing blogs were talking a lot about alpha-dog behavior and very little about rudeness (that was the left-wing blogs). In short, being able to command the battle-space is part of a presidential / vice-presidential showdown and Biden was the unquestionable winner in control of the discussion. People will accept a mean president. They will not, as Obama discovered last week, accept a weak one.
  2. Biden displayed a greater emotional range than Ryan did. Ryan is a good, clear, obviously smart speaker--but he didn't have the range that Biden did. Biden picked the right times to look into the camera and talk to senior citizens (his gray hair lending credibility there). Ryan told us about Romney's helping a family struck by tragedy--powerful stuff--and not badly delivered--but not with the same power Biden delivered similar lines. Part of this is talent--but a lot of it is experience: Biden has many more years playing in this and similar formats than Ryan did.
  3. Fewer major hits. Biden had no winning story on Libya--but Ryan still wouldn't name a loop-hole he'd close and Ryan wasn't able to deflect the vouchers issue on Medicare either. The final abortion question was well handled by both men to the degree that no one collapsed but if a voter cares about abortion rights Ryan didn't (and, to be fair, couldn't) play the "It's not part of my agenda" card that Romney tried a few days ago. 
  4. Goals Accomplished. Biden had a much harder goal--convince the demoralized base that Team Obama is still a winner and still fighting. He did. Ryan had an easier goal: Don't give up the ship (i.e. don't lose--don't look ridiculous, etc.) He didn't. Both men did what they came to do--but Biden's bar was higher and he still cleared it easily (my twitter feed was full of thrilled Democrats and fairly annoyed Republicans). I believe scoring this fairly gives an advantage to Biden.
Will it matter? Yes, at least somewhat: morale is important and Biden restored much of that. If Obama collapses next week it won't help things there--but that seems unlikely. The polling will be the ultimate measure of the success of Team Obama's strategy (including Biden's debate) but it seems at least plausible that this has had some impact around D enthusiasm if nowhere else.

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