One other good example of how perceptions and memories of a debate change: Joe Biden’s 2012 matchup against Paul Ryan is apparently largely remembered as a solid victory over his Republican rival. Today the New York Times declared, “Biden used a command of foreign policy, Congress and the White House to hammer and at times belittle his rival and turn back attacks on President Barack Obama.” Over in The Guardian, Democrats more or less credit Biden’s performance for saving the Obama campaign:
“Obama’s performance was just miserable,” [Former Bernie Sanders campaign manager Tad] Devine said. “Biden went in there against Ryan and, boy, he was appropriately aggressive. On point. Really drove the thing and I think staunched the bleeding.”
Staffers for the re-election campaign often contrast the first debate with the vice-presidential debate.
“Obama had flubbed the first debate and there was a lot of pressure on [Biden] to deliver and he nailed it and I know he sort of cold-cocked them,” one top re-election campaign adviser recalled.
Except . . . the post-debate polls were hardly unanimous in the assessment that Biden had done the better job. CNN’s poll of viewers conducted right after the debate showed 48 percent of viewers preferred Ryan and 44 percent preferred Biden. The Reuters poll showed a small margin saw Biden as the better performer: “42 percent to 35 percent — among registered voters, with a similar margin among independents.” The CBS instant poll gave Biden the best review, with 50 percent saying Biden had won, 31 percent saying Ryan had, and 19 percent saying a tie.
What’s more, even usually-friendly media had to acknowledge Biden had interrupted, laughed and shouted his way through the evening. WBUR, Boston’s NPR affiliate:
People watched both candidates on the split screen and they were judging them at all times by how they acted and reacted. So when Biden was grinning broadly while Ryan talked about tragedy in the Middle East, people saw that he was acting inappropriately and wondered whether everything was political to this lifetime pol. He was disrespectful.
Biden was also disrespectful in constantly interrupting his opponent, probably more than any candidate in the history of televised debate. Rudeness isn’t a sin, but it’s a turnoff — especially to people, like undecided voters, who don’t already agree with you.
Four years earlier, when Biden debated Sarah Palin, he enjoyed a considerable advantage in experience, and didn’t botch the evening, but didn’t look like an old pro against an amateur, as some expected. Polls said Biden won but that Palin was more likeable. Some focus groups showed strong preference for Palin. Biden also described some sort of alternate universe where “the U.S. and France had kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon.”
Throughout Biden’s shaky 2020 Democratic primary debate performances, observers, including myself, remarked that this wasn’t the same guy we saw debating Paul Ryan a few years ago. Then again, maybe the Biden of 2008 and 2012 wasn’t really as good as most people remember him being.