Election 2012

The media processes the vice-presidential debate

The media processes the vice-presidential debate
MSNBC's Chris Matthews

The easiest way to tell that Vice President Joe Biden accomplished his mission of energizing a dejected base was to check out MSNBC’s post-debate analysis.  When Romney thumped Obama, MSNBC host Chris Matthews had an existential meltdown, visibly melting from despair.  But everyone was very excited about Angry Joe’s refusal to let Paul Ryan get a word in edgewise.

Matthews wasn’t much interested in fact-checking Biden’s whoppers on Medicare, the Romney tax reform plan, or anything else.  “A clear victory for Joe Biden,” he pronounced, even as virtually every media poll revealed voters thought Ryan won, or at worst called the evening a draw.

The CNN instant poll called Ryan the winner, 48 to 44 percent, although that was within the rather broad margin of error.  Ryan was more clearly superior on clear communication (50 to 41) and likeability (53 to 43).  CNBC gave the win to Ryan by 56 to 36 percent.  CBS News was the only major media poll I could find that showed a clear Biden victory, 50 to 31, with 19 percent calling it a tie.  Interestingly, there were reports of an Associated Press poll that showed Ryan winning by 51-43, but John Nolte at Breitbart News says he has been told the AP poll was not real.

“I think the way I’m scoring it, and I hope this is clear: on Benghazi, I give it to Ryan; on economics, I give it a draw; on Medicare, all Biden; on tax fairness, all Biden; on Afghanistan, another draw; on Syria, another draw; on abortion, all Biden.  He wins three big ones,” Matthews pronounced on MSNBC, probably unaware that the majority of Americans agree with Ryan’s abortion position, and were probably not thrilled to hear Biden explain that life begins at conception, but murdering it is cool anyway, if that’s what you really want to do.  Maybe Chris Matthews can explain what Obama and Biden will do to save Medicare, because no one watching that debate came away with the faintest clue.

It’s not surprising that Matthews would be gushing, because Biden was debating exactly the way he would: a lot of unsupported “malarkey,” to use the phrase that came up during the debate, bellowed at a high enough volume to drown out the other guy.  Other networks found undecided voters turned off by Angry Joe.  Various media organizations reviewed the transcripts and estimated how often Biden interrupted Ryan; the consensus appears to be somewhere between 80 and 85 times.

One woman in the CNN focus group said that Biden came off like a “buffoon”:

Over at NBC, David Gregory thought Biden’s performance would strike many viewers as “condescending”:

Chris Wallace at Fox News was appalled by Biden’s behavior.  “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a debate in which one participant was as openly disrespectful of the other as Biden was to Paul Ryan tonight,” he observed.  “It was openly contemptuous and disrespectful.”

The contrary Old Media view of Biden’s belligerence as a means of “controlling” the debate was best expressed by George Stephanopolous of ABC News, who thought that “over the course of the debate, more of issues fell in Biden’s corner. He was able to take control of more of the debate.”  He did, however, think Ryan also performed well, and was less willing to declare a clear winner than ABC political analyst Matthew Dowd, who thought Ryan did “fine” but Biden “won.”

CNN had a graph charting the reactions from a group of undecided voters as the debate unfolded.  Afterward, anchor Wolf Blitzer reviewed the high and low points for the two candidates, and made the interesting observation that they both hit their high points during the same answer – the discussion of tax rates.  This might be taken as evidence that up-for-grabs voters are particularly indecisive about the tax issue, and respond to strong arguments made from both sides: both Ryan’s pro-growth emphasis on the importance of reviving the stalled economy, and Biden’s “ask the rich to contribute a little more” class warfare.

The broad spectrum of media reactions reflects the processing of a debate in which there was a little something for everyone, rather than the one-sided drubbing Romney gave Obama.  Different groups reacted in a variety of ways.  Media analysis, beyond the obvious partisans like Chris Matthews, was shaded by which group of voters they chose to study most intently.  There’s no question Biden did a good job of rallying a dispirited Democratic base, and that’s an important strategic accomplishment at this point in the campaign.  Ryan clearly passed the “looks vice-presidential hurdle,” which is much higher than all the jokes about the uselessness of the office would suggest.

Undecided voters responded well to Ryan, and were turned off by Biden’s attitude… but many of them did not watch the debate live, and when they read about it on Friday, they’ll encounter a lot of pundit praise for how “commanding” and “tough” Biden was, coupled with very little “fact-checking.”  In the end, maybe Biden’s most important audience was the media, and that might not have been a bad calculation on his part.

Update: According to the Huffington Postthe initial TV ratings were about par for a vice presidential debate, but far below the massive audience of 70 million that tuned in for Palin-Biden in 2008.  Biden-Ryan drew 43 million from the major broadcast and cable networks, led by Fox News with 10.2 million viewers.  The final numbers will be higher, once various secondary networks are counted in.

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