Do Vice-Presidential Debates Matter?

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Mike Segar / Jason Reed / REUTERS

Vice President Joe Biden speaking in Charlotte, N.C., Sept 6, 2012, and Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, speaking in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 29, 2012, are shown in this combination photo.

On last weekend’s Saturday Night Live Weekend Update, Seth Meyers said that the biggest winner after the first presidential debate was really the viewing public. “Is there anything more exciting than Joe Biden thinking it’s up to him to get the lead back?” he joked. “There’s like a 50% chance he’s going to come out at the next debate with his shirt off.” But while the first presidential debate appears to have given Mitt Romney his first polling lead in a year, there’s a much smaller chance that whatever happens at the vice presidential debate on Thursday will impact the election.

That’s not to say that the eight televised vice presidential debates in American history have been without effect. Take this exchange from 1976, during the first such debate between Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Walter Mondale:

DOLE: [Ford’s pardon of Nixon] is an appropriate topic, I guess, but it’s not a very good issue any more than the war in Vietnam would be or World War II, or World War I, or the war in Korea, all Democrat wars, all in this century. I figured up the other day, if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it’d be about 1.6 million Americans – enough to fill the city of Detroit …

MONDALE: Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight, by implying, and stating, that World War II and the Korean War were Democratic wars. Does he really mean to suggest to the American people that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the war to fight Nazi Germany? I don’t think any reasonable American would accept that.

In a book on political communication, scholar Richard M. Perloff observes that Dole’s divisive claim and the solid response of Mondale, who would go on to outperform Ronald Reagan in the first presidential debate of 1984, helped propel the Jimmy Carter ticket.

And there are other examples. Researchers Diana Carlin and Peter Bicak posited that Lloyd Bentsen’s performance, including his famous dismissal of Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy” in the 1988 debate, may have actually made Bentsen’s Democratic running mate Michael Dukakis look weak by comparison. And James Stockdale’s bad showing, as Ross Perot’s Independent running mate, made the team appear like a sideshow—and Perot a poor decision-maker–according to focus-group research summarized by University of Richmond professor Mari Boor Tonn for a project on the 1992 debates.

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But vice presidential debates haven’t proven to be deciding factors when the whole race is taken into account. In his 1996 book Do Campaigns Matter?, Thomas Holbrook analyzed the impact of debates from 1984 to 1992 and found that “there is very little evidence that vice presidential debates do much at all to alter the political landscape.” None of the three he examined—George H.W. Bush v. Geraldine Ferraro; Quayle v. Bentsen; and Al Gore v. Quayle v. Stockdale—“produced a substantial aggregate effect.”

In 2008, viewers anticipated Sarah Palin to betray her ignorance or Joe Biden to gaffe it up. But little happened during the debate or in the polls afterward. The Real Clear Politics averages for Obama and McCain were at 49 and 43.3, respectively, on the morning of the vice presidential debate. Five days later, neither average had moved so much as a point. Despite the hype, sometimes debates are just good television. And Thursday’s matchup should, as Meyers notes, at least be entertaining.