Craig Frucht | Road to November
Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 08:10
At one point in last week’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden threw back his head, laughed, and interrupted Paul Ryan to denounce one of the latter’s answers as “just a bunch of stuff.”
And that pretty much summed up the night. Biden spent most of the debate acting like he was Ryan’s personal fact-checker, using an entertaining array of nonverbal strategies to convey disbelief, including laughing, sighing, smiling, eye-rolling and head-shaking.
Regardless of whether you found Biden’s style off-putting or engaging, he unquestionably won the debate on substance. He came across as far more experienced and knowledgeable than Ryan, who relied mostly on Republican platitudes when discussing the Obama administration, especially its foreign policy. And when pressed by moderator Martha Raddatz to give specifics, Ryan’s answers were completely incoherent — although the fact that he couldn’t get through a sentence without being interrupted may have added to that impression.
Overall, Biden did a great job of taking Ryan to task for an economic platform built on impossible arithmetic and a foreign policy consisting entirely of chest-thumping bluster.
But don’t expect it to shake up the race. Even if Biden had scored the same kind of knockout victory that Romney had the week before — and he didn’t — there probably wouldn’t have been much poll movement. Vice presidential debates just don’t factor that much into voters’ decisions. The only person who can reverse the gains Romney made last week is President Obama, and he’ll have his chance in tonight’s debate.
That isn’t to say Biden didn’t have any impact, however. He succeeded in getting the media to talk about something other than Obama’s cheerless showing the week before. Self-feeding narratives are dangerous, and the one Obama has endured for the last two weeks was probably more devastating to his candidacy than the debate itself.
Democrats typically and predictably panic at the first sign of trouble. When things look bad for Republicans, they accuse the messenger of being a left-wing conspirator and stay the course with a renewed sense of urgency. When Democrats get bad news, they declare all to be lost and behave as though the new, grimmer state of affairs is hopelessly irreversible.
This shows up in poll numbers. Depressed voters are not likely voters, and that has amplified Romney’s recent gains. But Democrats may feel more motivated to turn out after watching Biden’s lively performance — especially women voters, who were likely very sensitive to Ryan’s implication that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Biden’s job was not to convince independents; it was to energize Obama’s deflated base, and he did so magnificently.
So to you Democrats out there predicting doom and bemoaning the cruel nature of electoral politics: Stop it. You’re annoying, you’re not helping, and you’re playing right into Romney’s hands. Yes, it’s disconcerting to see Romney pull even with Obama in the national polls. Yes, it is now within the realm of possibility that Romney will become president. But to say that Romney is ahead right now simply isn’t true. Obama still leads in most polls in Ohio, and by four to six points in three of them. If his numbers don’t deteriorate any further, he should take the state, and then he only needs one other swing state to pull out an electoral college victory — most likely Nevada, which has a large Latino population and where Obama has not trailed in a single survey all year.
Let’s not lose sight of the big picture, however. Biden may have stopped the bleeding, but Obama absolutely must make a stronger case for himself if he is to put any distance between him and Romney before Election Day. That means tonight may be the most pivotal moment of the entire campaign. For Obama’s sake, it had better be.
Craig Frucht is a senior majoring in political science and psychology. He can be reached at Craig.Frucht@tufts.edu.