Judge: Jason Jarvis
Scores: Biden 83 | Palin 78
There are two key criteria to evaluate in assessing the winner of this debate. The first issue is related to style and the second is related to content. Prior to addressing these two areas, it should be noted that expectations for Sarah Palin were quite low. Recent interviews with Katie Couric have made many conservatives angry and even led some of them to suggest that she is utterly unfit for her office. Despite the grading given to Palin in this debate, it is significant that she didn’t live down to the lowered expectations for her that many people had. In essence she didn’t make any tremendous mistakes and was substantially better in the debate than she was expected to be. Regardless, Biden clearly won this debate.
The first area of analysis is style. Style was the aspect of debating in which Palin was strongest. She was confident throughout the debate in delivering clear and very simple answers. She was very folksy, and often relied on homespun charm when speaking. She was also quite feisty at times, garnering audience wide laughs when answering a question about the role of the Vice President and suggesting that perhaps Biden’s suggestion that he didn’t want to be Vice President was just a lame joke that nobody understand. Even Biden chuckled at this remark. Palin’s only failure in this regard was toward the second half of the debate when she was slow to respond to some of the questions from the moderator. It was clear from this that she was less skilled at issues of foreign policy.
Biden, in contrast, often seemed very Presidential. It was clear that he was knowledgeable, experienced and very comfortable speaking about all of the issues. Biden did run the risk of being too much of a lecturer at times. He often waved a pointed finger at the audience in answering questions. This is a non-verbal cue that reminds many people of an angry parent or authority figure scolding them. It is not a motion that is inviting or reassuring and it may have turned off some independent voters.
Biden did have one unexpected but poignant moment. In an effort to counter Palin’s constant appeals to her understanding of the common problems that families face, Biden began discussing his family. He referenced his experience as being a father after the death of his wife, and his childhood when his family faced economic hardship as his father went to a new job in a different time. During this answer, he became choked up and unable to speak for a few seconds. It was a powerful moment that humanized Joe Biden and served as an interesting contrast to the confident professor he appeared to be throughout the debate.
From a substantive perspective this was not a close debate. Palin avoided many questions and often appeared to be speaking from a series of talking points rather than addressing the question that was asked. This was particularly true on foreign policy issues. In response to a question about the relative dangers of an unstable Pakistan versus a nuclear Iran, Palin began talking about Kim, Jong Il and other leaders of rogue nations. This was in sharp contrast to Biden who specifically indicated that Pakistan was more dangerous as it already had nuclear weapons. . In response to questions about how each side would provide an end to the Iraq war, after Palin provided another vague response, Biden noted that “I didn’t hear a plan in that answer.” Even on economic issues, when asked to defend John McCain’s record on de-regulation and its relationship to the sub-prime mortgage crisis she talked about tax cuts.
It is, in this case, somewhat ironic that Palin was prepared by Liberty University debate coach Brett O’Donnell as the tactic of answering a different question than the one you are asked is a strategy that was often performed quite effectively by the late Chancellor of Liberty University: Jerry Falwell. However, Mr. Falwell was a much more skilled orator and he was much better at tailoring his non- sequitur to the question asked of him. While Palin was not nearly as bad as advertised, and undoubtedly performed better than expected, her consistent pattern of evasiveness in response to questions made this an easy debate to evaluate. There can be little doubt that Joe Biden was the winner.