By Mark Mellman - 10/14/08 04:23 PM EDT
For better or worse, the vice presidential debate will not affect the outcome of the race one iota. Nonetheless, one of its most striking features — with implications for Wednesday night’s clash — was the radical disconnect between the views expressed by commentators and those of the voters, whose reactions the analysts were presumably trying to anticipate. Bamboozled into parroting the Republicans’ line, the commentariat graded the candidates on the curve, against unrealistic “expectations,” while voters insisted on judging them as presidents.
Aided by the soft bigotry of low expectations, Sarah Palin apparently was required only to avoid drooling into the camera to “merit” a tie, if not a win, from many instant analysts.
Peggy Noonan awarded Palin a clear victory — “She killed. It was her evening. She was the star.” NBC anchor Brian Williams compared Palin to Noonan’s former boss — “Like Ronald Reagan ... this is a trained communicator …” Colleague Tom Brokaw surmised “they’re whooping it up in Alaska tonight and all the parties across the country for the McCain campaign … [She] did herself a lot of good and probably her ticket some good as well.” In a piece headlined, “You betcha Sarah Palin can debate,” a usually perceptive journalist wrote that the Alaska governor “dominated” the debate.
Frank Luntz proved beyond any doubt the folly of his televised focus groups for Fox by finding unanimous support for Palin after the debate.
The problem, of course, is that none of this commentary bore any relationship to voters’ reality.
Every scientific survey makes it clear that Joe Biden was the unqualified winner of his engagement with Sarah Palin.
Unlike some of its commentators, CNN’s poll revealed that Biden was seen as having done a better job than Palin by a landslide 15-point margin. Voters were nearly unanimous (87 percent) in saying Biden was qualified to assume the presidency, while only 46 percent could say the same about Palin. After watching her debate for 90 minutes, an outright majority (53 percent) continued to believe Palin was not qualified.
Losing by 15 points and ending up with most voters saying your candidate is unqualified may provide sufficient cause for popping champagne corks at Republican house parties, but it should not be enough to earn praise from responsible commentators.
CBS’s poll of uncommitted voters was no less devastating for Palin. Among those critical swing voters, Biden won by an even larger 25-point margin. Biden also did more than Palin to improve his standing with these voters.
Tracking polls reveal the very limited impact of the debate overall, but do suggest Biden did better for himself than did Palin. The Diageo/Hotline poll tracks favorability ratings for each candidate on a daily basis. From just before to just after the debate, Biden’s net favorability rose by seven points, compared to a five-point increase for Palin. Similar data from Research 2000’s Daily Kos poll also had Biden’s net favorables increasing by seven points, while Palin gained just three.
Despite the analysts’ expectations, the effect on the ticket was nonexistent. Not one tracking poll showed movement toward the McCain-Palin ticket in the days following the debate.
CBS asked their uncommitted sample whether the encounter had any influence on their voting intentions and found 18 percent going to Obama/Biden as a result, while a lesser 10 percent moved to McCain/Palin.
A similar disconnect was evident in the second presidential debate as well. Commentators waxed on about how the town hall was clearly “McCain’s format,” calling it a draw, even while the polls showed an Obama win and revealed that he had connected better with voters.
Commentators would do well to recognize their predictions of public reaction are often inaccurate and avoid confusing their own opinions with those of voters.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.