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Ask Auntie Pinko

October 8, 2004

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I can understand why debates between the presidential candidates are important to voters in helping make up their minds, but why do we bother with debates by the vice-presidential candidates? Back when Dan Quayle debated Lloyd Bentson, Bentson mopped the floor with Quayle but it didn't make any difference.

Does it make any impact on the outcome at all to have the vice-presidential candidates debate?

Kansas City, MO

Dear Scott,

I hope you don't mind that Auntie waited until after this election's vice-presidential debate to address your question. It might be cheating a little bit (if something really dramatic and earthshaking had happened, obviously it would affect my response) but I wanted to have as much information on hand as possible.

There are really two different questions there - why bother, and what difference does it make. But the answer to "why bother" doesn't depend on whether it "makes a difference." Debates are an opportunity for voters to observe the candidates side by side, making their cases for why they should be elected, addressing the same subjects and responding to one another. Of course it's most important to do this with the presidential candidates, since they are the ones we are selecting to sit in the White House and make the decisions that lead our country.

It's an overused cliché, I agree, but the person who will be vice president is, indeed "a heartbeat away" from that responsibility. And therefore the voters deserve a chance to take a closer look at the individuals who might fill that slot. It is unlikely that any vice-presidential candidate is going to perform so badly in a debate setting as to make people think it would be unacceptable to have him take over the presidency if needed. But the voters should still be given the chance to see for themselves.

Another very good reason to add a vice-presidential debate to the schedule is that such debates usually receive a fairly high level of attention and receive good media coverage. It's hard enough to get Americans to pay attention to the fact that they're being asked to fulfill their most important responsibility as a citizen (look at the abysmal voter registration and turnout rates) much less to pay attention to the issues at stake. One more high-profile event that allows those issues to be raised and discussed in a focused context is a great asset amid the jostling propaganda noise.

As to whether a vice-presidential debate makes any real difference, Auntie hates to sound like just another "pundit," but I can't really differ from the established consensus on this question, which is: mostly no, but maybe yes. That is, it has never yet made a real difference, but the possibility is always there that it might do so. Had either of the candidates debating on Tuesday night said something wildly outside the expected parameters, had Mr. Edwards succeeded in provoking Mr. Cheney to resort to profanity, etc., we might have seen some effect on the overall outcome.

As it is, the vice-presidential debate is essentially an opportunity for both campaigns to strengthen the cases they put before the American people for why they should be elected. That might not have a dramatic effect, but in a close race, losing an opportunity to strengthen their case could damage a campaign's momentum. The converse is also true - using that opportunity well can maintain or add to a campaign's momentum. So many factors affect the outcome of an election that it is difficult, if not impossible, to directly attribute any one factor as decisive. But each factor can contribute to the cumulative total that does determine the result.

From that standpoint, Auntie was quite pleased with Tuesday night's event. Admittedly, of course, I am a highly partisan observer. But even attempting to view the performances of the two candidates as objectively as possible, it was clear to me that Mr. Edwards did a better job of strengthening his campaign's case than Mr. Cheney. I was particularly happy with the closing statements, not only because Mr. Edwards did such a fine job, but because he did it in a way that avoided the appearance of exploiting his advantages of charisma and appearance - which might have mitigated the effect by producing a sympathy swing to Mr. Cheney and making Mr. Edwards look manipulative.

I'm looking forward with confidence to the remaining two Presidential debates, Scott, and I hope that you and all of our Democratic Underground readers will not only make a point of watching them yourselves, but of urging or inviting your friends (especially those who are undecided) to do so. Remember, the more people know about the issues, the more attractive our case looks! So tune in for the rest of the debates, Scott, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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