Prof Talk: Julie Dolan, Poli Sci, on the Vice Presidential Debate

By Hazel Schaeffer

Did anything surprise you about the candidates’ interactions with each other during last Thursday’s Vice Presidential debate?I was surprised that Biden had such a big toothy grin while Palin was speaking. They are on the divided screen on the television- you can see both of them. He did seem to be rather amused by a number of things that she said. I think he probably wanted to come across as being agreeable, a nice guy. But at some times he looked like he was being very amused, he could hardly contain [himself]. He wasn’t being condescending to her; he treated her with respect in their interactions. But when she was speaking the look on his face seemed to suggest he couldn’t believe some of the things she was saying, or that it was ridiculous.

And do you think that would offend American voters?

Yeah. I think some people might take offense to that, and think that here’s an older guy, who’s been in Washington a long time, clearly he has a better understanding of policy debates and things that have happened in Washington than does she. She is clearly the underdog in that situation, and nobody likes to see someone gloat on national television. And I don’t know if he was gloating so much as he seemed to be so amused.

Who do you think won the debate?

I think Biden answered the questions. I don’t think Palin answered the questions. If it’s looking how they did compared to expectations, I would say it was a tie. I mean, I think that they both satisfied their bases or they managed to do what they were attempting to do: to come across as qualified for the job.

Do you think Biden arrived with higher public expectations than Palin?

Definitely. He’s been in Washington for all this time, so if he can’t hold his own in a debate about policy issues he has been involved with all these years, he would look like a buffoon.

It’s sometimes said that the role of the VP candidate is to be an attack dog for his or her running mate. Did these candidates live up to that role in this debate?

Yes they did and I think they were both very pointed. Biden had more specifics, but they were both good at taking on the opponent’s running mate. They did not take on one another so much as they took on McCain and Obama, respectively.

And do you think the way they took on McCain and Obama was negative?

I don’t think it was negative at all. I think last night’s [presidential debate] was far more negative on a personal level. Biden said over and over again, “John’s a good friend of mine, I respect him, I have immense respect for the man, but he’s wrong, he’s out of touch.” Palin was maybe a little more negative about Obama, saying that . there was something personally about him that wasn’t quite fit for public office of the presidency.

Do you think Palin’s colloquial phrases and winks undermined her effort to prove that she is ready to be Vice President and even President if necessary, or did they endear her to the American people by identifying herself as an average citizen and Washington outsider?

I think probably the latter. For me the winks got to be a bit too much, because when you do it once that’s fine, but she did it three or four times, and I think that the third or fourth time it just seemed corny. It was too cute, just “I’ve got to do something to connect, but I’m doing this to get people to like me and to see that I’m just a regular gal.” And her speech. She’s been critiqued for her lack of command, or her improper syntax and grammatical errors that she made in the debate, but I think that the average American doesn’t care all that much about that. She’s not a policy wonk. She said, “I’ve only been at this for five weeks,” not “cut me some slack,” necessarily, but clearly “I’m not as well-versed in these things as my opponents.” So yeah, I think that the public responded to her. They may not think she’s a rocket scientist or she’s the smartest candidate out there . but she was able to demonstrate that she’s just a regular person.

It’s been said that Palin has coasted through the media as more of a human interest story than as a real candidate. What do you think of that assessment?

I don’t think that’s true. I think she has been raked over the coals by both her interviews with Charlie Gibson and with Katie Couric, that they asked her a number of pointed policy questions. They did not ask her nice friendly things about what it was like growing up in Alaska-I mean maybe some softball questions, but I think that they have been very pointed in their questions.

Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that Sarah Palin is unfit to be President. Actuary tables used by insurance companies also say that at his age, McCain has at least a 30 percent chance of dying in office. Did Palin’s performance last Thursday do anything to calm the electorate’s hesitations about her, or did it just reaffirm them?

For people that didn’t think she was up to the job, I don’t think that her debate performance convinced them. For those who thought she was up to the job, I’m guessing that they came away with the same impression [that they had originally]. So I don’t think it changed many people’s minds about suitability for office.

According to polls, this was the most watched VP debate in history. Is that because the stakes are so high this time, or because of the interest surrounding Palin?

I think some of both. The American electorate is tuned in; they’re interested in what’s going on. This is a high stakes election, but she’s a novelty, too. She’s only the second female VP candidate we’ve ever had; she’s the first Republican one . A woman in politics is sort of like a two-headed cow, that everybody wants to see just to see if you’re the real deal. They’re so intrigued by your capacity to do this job that they want to see you. Where if she was just another white guy, they wouldn’t have been nearly as much interest.

So do you feel that the debate had little impact on voters?

I think the debates usually have little impact on voters. They have an impact on undecided voters to a certain extent, but again, it’s more often that individuals are looking for character traits that they can relate to, or not relate to.

What character traits came across?

[Palin] is folksy; she’s down to earth; she is an outsider. She is somebody who says she’s going to bring change to Washington. She’s a far more credible vehicle for that message than John McCain. I think Biden was able to reintroduce himself, because he has gotten so little press coverage . most people don’t really know who he is. I think he . presented himself as combative, but not in a bad way, necessarily-aggressive, knowledgeable about the issues, and also as a regular guy.

This interview was conducted on Wednesday, Oct. 8. Next week, Prof Talk interviews Deb Smith, Sociology, about sex appeal in this year’s presidential election.