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The blah-blah-blah factor: why debate style matters

posted at 4:46 pm on October 13, 2012 by

More than twenty-four hours after the vice presidential debate, analysis continues. Who won? Does it matter?

On the former question, a CNN poll showed viewers believe Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan won, 51-43, while a CBS poll reported the opposite with Democratic Vice President Joseph Biden the victor, 50-31.

On the latter question, it depends whom you ask. Passionate partisan Democrats loved Biden’s performance. Talking Points Memo’s Evan McMorris-Santoro says “there was much to love” about the vice-president’s performance. “Joe Biden kicked butt,” one Democrat was quoted as saying in an ABC story. And the folks at Daily Kos said…well, imagine unicorns and rainbows doing the Snoopy dance of happiness, pausing only long enough to stick their tongues out at Republicans. No need to actually go to their site.

They all thought Biden did what the president didn’t—aggressively counter his opponent. They viewed his interruptions and mugging as appropriate responses to someone they believed was being disingenuous at best. So the debate mattered a great deal to them, reenergizing the president’s worried base. The problem for Democrats: these are votes they had anyway.

Conservatives and dispassionate observers, however, were generally appalled by Biden’s behavior. I’m a professional writer, and it’s hard for me to capture in words how immature his facial expressions, gestures and interruptions made Biden look. Laughing during a discussion of nuclear war sums it all up, though. Who does that?

After the debate, Fox News’s Brit Hume and Greta Van Susteren both talked about how Biden’s laugh reflex is a nervous tic and how in his personal life the man is generous of spirit. Fair enough. But that attribute needs to be paired with a sober attitude toward serious subjects, or at least a respect for those who want to discuss them seriously. What Biden failed to realize was that those who take these issues seriously also included the audience. Laughing at Ryan was laughing at them, too. It was as if Biden were the annoying jokester who can’t resist making puns while you’re trying to listen to an interesting conversation or watch a dramatic movie. Shut up already, you feel like saying.

Candidates should be judged on the substance of their ideas on various issues, of course. But none of us has a crystal ball that tells us which issues will become priorities because of changing circumstances. So we also judge candidates on their personalities and characters, and what these say about their decision-making capabilities and inclinations. In that sense, style might tell us something: is this fellow a clear thinker, does this woman consider all points of view? Can I trust him or her?

Unfortunately for Biden, his snarky attitude made him seem at least unbelievable if not outright untrustworthy. Sure, he was able to use all the right jargon and toss around information. But in that sense, he was like the quirky guy everybody ignores when he goes on at great length, with Cheshire-cat grin and encyclopedic knowledge, about how the Red Sox will absolutely, positively—no doubt whatsoever, my good friend—win next year. We’ve all had our shoulders tapped by that fellow. We might find him amusing and once in a blue moon he might be right, but it’s a bit frightening imagining him a heartbeat away from…well, I always have trouble finishing that sentence.

But, back to actual substance and its interplay with style: Watching the first presidential debate, I thought one of Mitt Romney’s advantages was that he came off as trustworthy, with some enumerated ideas on issues, while the president seemed to be spewing a lot of blah-blah-blah, the usual talking points that come from a candidate’s mouth about fairness… moving forward…American people…what-a-mess-I-inherited, for the love of God.

Blah-blah-blah falls into two categories—the vague talking-points discussion mentioned above or a bunch of material (think quirky guy’s encyclopedic knowledge of Red Sox history) the interested but undecided voter hasn’t had a chance to study.

During the veep match-up, both candidates were throwing facts, figures, analysis, details around fast and furiously (although, ironically, the Fast and Furious scandal itself did not come up). When that happens, I believe undecided voters or nonpartisan voters (voters who switch “team” loyalties from year to year depending on the candidate) hear blah-blah-blah from both sides and end up favoring the candidate they believe they can trust.

Although I’ve expressed my dismay over the undecided voter—how can they be undecided at this point?—I do understand the befuddlement they must experience when confronted with a raft of material they’ve not been following but want to understand. They must feel they are coming up on a test for which they’ve not adequately studied. In a sense, all of us are in that “unprepared” state concerning all facets of foreign policy. We might be able to Google various government documents and studies concerning domestic issues, but we won’t see the classified intelligence briefings the candidates have seen.

That brings us back to trustworthiness.

A brief television news discussion recently centered on how voters have come to distrust campaign ads that feature the opponent saying something negative because voters now automatically assume that both sides take quotes out of context. Thus, a new positive Romney ad that featured the candidate alone talking about his ideas received good reviews from those on the TV show. Romney had already demonstrated in the first debate that he was likeable and confident. The ad helped reinforce that image. This discussion was on MSNBC.

Before the first presidential debate, voters probably had a vague idea that Romney was a rich guy who might not understand their problems well enough to look out for their interests. His debate performance showed a likable fellow who has positive ideas, and who also happens to be rich. But I don’t think Americans despise the rich as much as the president’s team would like them to.

Unfortunately for the president, he appeared unengaged and sometimes– because of the vagueness of his answers –uninformed. Unfortunately for Vice President Joe Biden, he appeared just…well, awfully odd.

The rest, to the undecided voter, is just a bunch of blah-blah-blah.

 

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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Excellent analysis.

I sensed that Ryan realized early on that Joe was going to be an ass, and decided not to engage him with similar tactics.

As I remarked to my spouse, they both entered and left with their bases intact, but Ryan walked away with the undecided voters.

Joe Mama on October 13, 2012 at 5:00 PM

As time goes by, Biden only looks worse and Ryan better. You want a deranged manic or a thoughtful economist? The European papers are still talking about Biden’s bizarre behavior. My son just switched his vote to Romney.

pat on October 13, 2012 at 5:04 PM

pat on October 13, 2012 at 5:04 PM

Welcome your son to the successful side :)

thebrokenrattle on October 13, 2012 at 5:12 PM

Ditto Pat ….

Two days after the debate … anyone remember what was said? Or do we remember how Biden behaved?

BD57 on October 13, 2012 at 6:05 PM

Two days after the debate … anyone remember what was said? Or do we remember how Biden behaved?

BD57 on October 13, 2012 at 6:05 PM

Similar to Gore vs. GWB in 2000, Debate #1. However, one difference here is, Biden’s Benghazi remark is still reverberating.

To anyone who’s honest and sane, Biden did lose, in the sense that if he were to carry on as he did that night in a job interview, his behavior would immediately disqualify him as a potential employee, whereas Ryan’s would not. Case closed!

Anti-Control on October 13, 2012 at 6:31 PM

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could strap the debaters into some sort of lie-detector contraption and watch those results as they spoke? I’m guessing that would change the nature of these debates in a big, big way…because style aside, Biden told some whoppers, and the Left doesn’t seem disturbed by that aspect of his performance, either.

No debate will ever be fair or capable of receiving a fair assessment by uninformed viewers when one side can lie with impunity. (Unless…you know…the liar also acts like a buffoon.)

butterflies and puppies on October 13, 2012 at 6:33 PM

…because style aside, Biden told some whoppers, and the Left doesn’t seem disturbed by that aspect of his performance, either.

butterflies and puppies on October 13, 2012 at 6:33 PM

Only goes to show what they value i.e. “Just win, baby!”

Anti-Control on October 13, 2012 at 6:43 PM

There was something so reassuring about the earnest, intelligent, cheerful yet at times serious face of Paul Ryan especially when contrasted with the leering toothy grin of Joe Biden. That is what I remember most about the debate. It was most unfortunate for Biden that the two faces were so often shown on a split screen right next to each other.

cheetah2 on October 13, 2012 at 11:03 PM

Conservatives and dispassionate observers, however, were generally appalled by Biden’s behavior.

Conservatives were appalled to be sure but Independents weren’t. Independents polled by CBS and in the Reuters/IPSOS polls thought Biden performed better than Ryan in the debate. The CNN viewers poll supports your view but that poll had a built in tilt towards Republicans that is not sustained in wider national surveys. I have read a number pieces like yours in the right wing press where this assumption is trotted out but it isn’t supported by polls.

I doubt that the VP debate will impact the election in any material way since neither candidate screwed up in a major way, both defended their tickets well, and we still have two more much more important Presidential debates yet to come.

lexhamfox on October 13, 2012 at 11:50 PM

“Medical professionals use the psychiatric term labile to refer to emotions that are extreme, exaggerated, and incongruent with immediate circumstances. A labile person may laugh at the death or serious injury of someone, even if they love them. Alternately, he or she might cry when someone tells a joke. If an emotionally labile person does laugh at something amusing or cry at something sad, the display of affection may be melodramatic and beyond what is typical. Rage often occurs as a symptom of lability, which is also known as pseudobulbar affect.

Emotional lability arises for two primary reasons: physical brain damage or an emotional disorder [or onset of dementia...]…

Anyone around a person who is having a labile moment typically should ignore him or her and not affirm the behavior.

mittens on October 14, 2012 at 2:04 AM

Conservatives were appalled to be sure but Independents weren’t. Independents polled by CBS and in the Reuters/IPSOS polls thought Biden performed better than Ryan in the debate. The CNN viewers poll supports your view but that poll had a built in tilt towards Republicans that is not sustained in wider national surveys. I have read a number pieces like yours in the right wing press where this assumption is trotted out but it isn’t supported by polls.

I doubt that the VP debate will impact the election in any material way since neither candidate screwed up in a major way, both defended their tickets well, and we still have two more much more important Presidential debates yet to come.

lexhamfox on October 13, 2012 at 11:50 PM

I hadn’t seen the Ipsos poll, but had seen a CNBC one favorable to Ryan I didn’t report because I believe it was not scientific. Do you know what the MoE was with the Ipsos? I saw one of theirs recently that had a 10 point MoE and an incredibly small sample.

I do agree that historically the veep debate has little impact on the overall race.

My comment about dispassionate observers being troubled by Biden was based on watching numerous pundits/writers on liberal MSNBC talk about Biden’s performance. Even those who liked the substance of Biden’s performance seemed troubled by his overall demeanor.

Libby Sternberg on October 14, 2012 at 6:38 AM

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

Joe Biden is a drivelist.

hillsoftx on October 14, 2012 at 8:11 AM

Libby Sternberg on October 14, 2012 at 6:38 AM

Here is a little snippet about the difference in the polls. Can’t find the data you asked for right now. Sorry.

For me the most troubling thing about he VP debate was that it highlighted the problem with Romney’s budget proposals. If anyone could provide some resolution on the obvious gap it would be Ryan and from what I saw he just git a brick wall when the issue came up. I’m glad that the other spats and the focus on Biden diverted attention from this but it won’t last and they are badly exposed unless they provide some more details and get to a platform that is fiscally sound. Sheila Bair and other thoughtful Republicans have raised the alarm. Perhaps the electorate won’t notice but the bond markets are paying attention and it will hurt us all.

lexhamfox on October 14, 2012 at 11:14 PM

For me the most troubling thing about he VP debate was that it highlighted the problem with Romney’s budget proposals. If anyone could provide some resolution on the obvious gap it would be Ryan and from what I saw he just git a brick wall when the issue came up. I’m glad that the other spats and the focus on Biden diverted attention from this but it won’t last and they are badly exposed unless they provide some more details and get to a platform that is fiscally sound. Sheila Bair and other thoughtful Republicans have raised the alarm. Perhaps the electorate won’t notice but the bond markets are paying attention and it will hurt us all.

Businesses in general are paying attention to the president’s ideas and not responding well to them.

Re: the impact of the debate — I saw a very interesting post at NRO that poinetd out how these debates now have multiple impacts due to social media and the like. First, you have the immediate reaction after the debate, but then snippets are replayed on Facebook, YouTube, blogs, etc. I think Biden’s bad mannerisms are amplified in that kind of repetition.

Libby Sternberg on October 15, 2012 at 6:49 AM

The CNN viewers poll supports your view but that poll had a built in tilt towards Republicans that is not sustained in wider national surveys. I have read a number pieces like yours in the right wing press where this assumption is trotted out but it isn’t supported by polls.

Rasmussen (as of Jun 2012) has a breakdown of 34.5% Republican, 34% Democrat and 30.5% unaffiliated. CNN’s poll had a breakdown of 33% Republican, 31% Democrat and and 34% Independent – more in line with ACTUAL voter breakdown and not the fantasies of Dem pollsters.
The only ‘built in tilt’ is in the minds of liberals.

mnealtx on October 15, 2012 at 8:20 AM