What Palin must do tomorrow to “win” the debate

The media frenzy over the Biden-Palin vice presidential debate suggests that this event could have a significant impact on the presidential race. Pundits, primed by Palin’s shaky performance in the Katie Couric interview, are poised for a Palin train wreck that will all but doom the McCain campaign.  In fact, however, Palin’s performance almost certainly will have no impact on the election at all – unless Palin takes my advice.  If she does, there is a slight chance she could boost McCain’s electoral chances. But her performance almost certainly cannot hurt him.  And Biden’s performance will be largely irrelevant to the outcome of the presidential race.

Why is this? Despite the media hype, historically vice presidential debates almost never have a significant impact on the election. More often than not, the perceived “winner” of the debate ended up on the losing ticket.  Remember Lloyd Bentsen’s celebrated put down of Dan Quayle in 1988?  Reacting to an effort by Quayle to compare his Senate service with Jack Kennedy’s, in order to counter charges that he lacked the experience to be Vice President, Bentsen memorably responded: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”  The audience erupted in cheers as Quayle appeared momentarily stunned. Less well remembered is Quayle’s response: “Senator, that was uncalled for” which also led to cheers from the Quayle supporters. Initially, the exchange was not viewed as very significant, but after constant repetition by media, it became the defining moment of the debate and cemented the view among pundits that Bentsen had cleaned Quayle’s clock. If so, it had very little impact on the election; Bentsen could not even carry his own home state of Texas in the general election as the Bush-Quayle ticket trounced the Dukakis-Bentsen pairing, Bentsen’s debate “win” not withstanding.

If presidential debates are rarely game changers – and the first Obama-McCain debate clearly was not – vice presidential debates are even more meaningless.  And, despite the media hype, this will almost certainly be true tomorrow – unless Palin ignores the advice that her supporters are undoubtedly sending her way and instead listens to me.  Pundits are convinced that for her to “win” this debate, she needs to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the issues that a president will likely confront than she has to date, in order to counteract the perception that she is an intellectual lightweight who lacks the experience to hold higher office.  This is precisely the wrong advice.  There is no way, in the limited time she has to prepare, that she can master the volume of information expected of her to the degree that her opponent has. History suggests that debaters who over prepare invariably sound scripted and less authentic.  Ronald Reagan – the Great Communicator – fell prey to this in his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984.  His debate team crammed his head with statistics, and his performance suffered. In the second debate, responding to the plea to let Reagan be Reagan,  he went off script and performed much more effectively.  Palin must do the same. Biden has spent 35 years in the Senate and she cannot hope to equal his grasp of the issues any more than Obama could match McCain’s knowledge of foreign policy.  But Biden is irrelevant to this debate. Much like Obama in the presidential debate, there is a much greater potential upside to Palin’s participation tomorrow than there is for Biden, who is already a known quantity.  Palin is not.  But she needs to ignore the temptation to try to meet the media expectations by demonstrating her mastery of the issues.  It is an impossible and self-defeating task.  Instead, if this debate is to be more than a media circus – if it is to benefit the Republican ticket – she needs to focus on her core audience: the Republican base and, most importantly, disaffected Clinton supporters and independents, particularly women.  Her opponent is not Joe Biden – it is Barack Obama. She must never lose sight of this. At every opportunity, she must turn this debate into a contest between her and Obama.  Palin must go off script and stay on the attack. Here is what she must say if this debate is to matter:

“In the last several weeks, I have come under increasing scrutiny regarding my experience and preparation to serve as Vice President.  My credentials – my speech, my background, my family, my clothes! – all have been held up to extended scrutiny.  Just yesterday the New York Times ran an extended article discussing my wardrobe!  I don’t shy from this – I expect it.  But I do ask that this same standard of scrutiny be applied to our opponent Barack Obama. Some of you in the audience – particularly those who supported Hillary Clinton – understand what is going on here.  It is the old double standard.  Women, to succeed, simply must be twice as good as men. That’s not a complaint – that’s a fact. Consider my opponent. If elected, Barack Obama would be the least experienced of any modern president, bar none. He has less executive experience than Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Clinton or even President Bush. He served fewer years in Congress than Truman, Kennedy, Johnson or Ford. He even has less executive experience than I do! He has never run anything in his life. In his short time in the Senate he never passed a single piece of significant legislation.  His only qualification for office – his only one – is a speech he made at the Democratic convention that attracted the attention of the Far Left of the Democratic Party. But somehow the media has turned that inexperience into a virtue – as a proof that he will bring change to Washington.  I, on the other hand, despite having much more governing experience, am deemed not quite ready – not quite good enough. Women out there have heard this line before – in boardrooms, on Wall St., in industry, law, medicine, and politics – “we’d love to promote you, but you just don’t have the experience necessary to handle the responsibility.”  And if we try to get that experience by charting a career-centered path, we are accused of being not feminine enough because we have shirked motherhood and raising a family. If we step off the career track to raise a family, we are condemned as not being ambitious enough.  We cannot win.

I understand this.  But I don’t accept it. All my life I’ve confronted these obstacles – I’m confronting them now.  I chose to raise a family when I was told it would hurt my political career. I’ve gone to PTA meetings, baked the cookies, roused the kids from bed – and I continue to do so as Governor of Alaska. You know what that means – you understand what it is to be a mother and hold a fulltime job. You understand the sacrifices it entails, and the roadblocks to equal opportunity that must be overcome. And those roadblocks won’t end – the double standard won’t be eliminated – until you do something about it.  John McCain has given you the opportunity that Barack Obama denied his party – a chance to make real change – to send a signal that the glass ceiling has finally been shattered.  All it takes is for you to stand up and say “enough” and pull the lever for the McCain-Palin ticket. Words and promises are no longer enough – you need to take action.  The Democratic Party has once again sent the message that you are a second-class citizen. They had the chance to truly change politics in America, and instead they reverted to the safe route.  Look at the man over there behind the podium – does he represent change?  I think not.

Send a message for real change.  End the double standard. Break the glass ceiling.  Because if you don’t do it now, who will?”

That’s the message Sarah Palin needs to get across tomorrow.  Her target audience is not the media, not the pundits, and certainly not Obama’s supporters. Right now John McCain is winning the vote of men, but losing women to Obama by 9%.  For McCain to win this election, Palin must peel some of that support off, particular among low-income working class women in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.  Demonstrating knowledge of arcane policy details is not the way to do it.  Demonstrating empathy and an understanding of their values is.  This is not an election about abortion, stem cells, or other moral values. It is about education, health care, and jobs. Palin needs to spend less time cramming for a test, and more time being Palin – honing her message and reaching out to the disaffected Clinton voters.

If she can do this – if she can swing even 5% of these voters into McCain’s column, she will have won this debate, no matter what the pundits say.  But to accomplish this, she needs to ignore almost every bit of advice the pundits have sent her way this last week.  She needs to largely ignore Joe Biden, who is in an almost impossible position.  Biden cannot help the Obama ticket – he can only hurt it.

Can she do it?  It’s highly unlikely. But it may be one of the few chances left to change the dynamics of this race which to this point favor Obama.  To do so, Palin needs to ignore the media pundits and let Palin be Palin.


  1. The real question is how many colored note cards it will take Palin to write down your speech. (I guess it really depends on whether she uses the front and the back.)

  2. She still needs to know more than one Supreme Court case….say Exxon vs Baker which is about the Alaska oil spill.

    Nevertheless your blog is right on. She is running in the other election, not the issues election. I agree she can make progress.

    And I am glad you are not her speech writer.


  3. Matt – you’ve scripted her opening comments. So what about the remaining 85 minutes? How does she jibe this “don’t let my ignorance interfere with my victimhood” message with actually having to answer questions about issues?

  4. Professor,

    Full disclosure to your readers: I’m a reporter who covers the White House.

    Despite the repeated references to “media hype” and to wrongheaded (and, as always in these kinds of analyses, unnamed) “pundits,” I don’t see a lot here that differs from the actual media consensus in Washington. It remains the view among the political press here that McCain-Palin need to make the election a referendum on Barack Obama, while Obama-Biden need to make it about George W. Bush but can settle for McCain vs Obama or even just plain McCain.

    (Palin might not want to say this, though: “If elected, Barack Obama would be the least inexperienced of any modern president, bar none.” But that’s a copy-editing mistake.)

    I’m glad that you are talking about the debate in terms of electoral dynamics. “The media” will be using hand-selected focus groups, snap polls, and other marginally scientific measures for who “won” the debate, but as you point out it’s more complicated than that: There are audiences that are not accounted for in that process. Consider that Palin may be trying to reassure people like syndicated conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who has called for her to quit the ticket. I doubt, though, that major TV networks will be focusing on that constituency as much as self-identified undecideds.

    Since you feel comfortable hitting “the media,” I hope you’ll indulge me as I hit “academics.” Declaring Biden (or, for that matter, Bentsen) irrelevant to the process is wholly wrongheaded. I don’t understand why so many political scientists just cannot seem to grasp the notion of “opportunity cost.”

    Take Bentsen-Quayle. Coverage that focuses on “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” is coverage that does not focus on “Dukakis lacks foreign policy experience.” Coverage that focuses on “Al Gore sighed a lot” is coverage that does not focus on “Governor Bush is misrepresenting his tax plan.”

    In short, it’s about the coverage you COULD be getting, not just the coverage you ARE getting. Unless, that is, you think the McCain campaign would not prefer to see “Todd Palin is a champion snowmobiler!” over “Governor Palin is not telling the truth about the ‘Bridge to Nowhere.'”

    To put it another way, a vice presidential debate that is not a “game-changer,” as you put it, is every bit as important as one that is a game-changer. If Middlebury is beating Bowdoin 1-0 in hockey (a laughably small margin, I’m sure) then Middlebury is perfectly happy with a total lack of “game-changers.” Saying that a debate that didn’t “change the game” did not have a meaningful impact on a race is wrong.

    With the caveat that I’m not endorsing these approaches as fair, or accurate, or anything but tactically interesting:

    You’re right that Palin will focus on Obama. My guess is that she will make references to her faith and family throughout (son in Iraq, unspecified “hardships that real Americans go through”), and that we can expect to hear a lot about how Obama tells working families one thing in Scranton and another in San Francisco (anchored on Obama’s comment about how working class Americans “cling to God, guns etc”). I would guess that we’ll hear a bit about how Obama pays his women staffers less than McCain does. I would bet we’ll hear her quote Hillary Clinton (by name) as saying that McCain has a lifetime of experience while Obama has “a speech he gave in 2002” – as you point out. If Palin doesn’t mention McCain’s military service, look for her to disappear from American politics.

    If he’s disciplined, Biden will focus on McCain, particularly on the economy and health care, hammer “McCain = Bush III” and try to reinforce the media narrative that McCain/Palin stretch the truth. But he’ll get drawn into debating Obama when Palin accuses the Democratic of wanting to raise taxes on middle-class families. If Biden feels he’s doing well, he may hazard a shot at Palin on women’s issues — I would guess a reference to how there is only one pro-choice ticket in the race, maybe a line about “women deserve better leadership than a mayor who makes rape victims pay to collect evidence that they were raped.” (Again, I’m taking tactics, not the merits.) Look for Biden to praise some variation on “the old John McCain that I knew” and declare that he’s changed. They will have prepared for this because Biden said in 2004 that he would agree to be McCain’s running mate in a hypothetical future election.

    My debate watching advice: Don’t rush to judgment. You’re probably not the target audience unless you’re a suburban married woman or a working class Democrat with doubts about Obama. If you’re a partisan supporter whose opinion is unchanged after the debate, you were not the target audience. Watch the polls in major battleground states over the coming days to see whether the picture there is changing.

  5. A couple more things:

    1) I see you fixed “inexperienced” between when I read the post and offered a comment.

    2) There is a dimension of the debate that targets committted partisans, and that’s in terms of giving them “talking points” for the water cooler conversations they have with undecideds. As a general rule, Republicans are much, much better at this than Democrats — they distill their messages to simple, easily used soundbites far more effectively. Think of the number of times you heard “Kerry was for it before he was against it” in 2004. The major exception on the Democratic side is Bill Clinton, who does this better, I think, than anyone living US politician.

    3) If you want to sound like an insider, tell your friends (preferably with a sad expression), that “in politics, explaining is losing.” It’s another opportunity cost reality: Every minute you spend defending your plan, trying to rebut your opponent’s arguments about your plan, is a minute you don’t spend attacking your opponent and defining them to voters.

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