Democrats’ split screen problem

October 12, 2012

In each of the first two debates of the 2012 election, the story coming out of the showdown has been as much -- if not more -- about how President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden looked than about what they said.

For Obama, it was his glum demeanor and odd tendency of staring down at his podium while Mitt Romney spoke. For Biden it was his smiling, laughing and even the occasional rhetorical aside as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan was speaking. (Worth noting: Ryan's tendency to smirk while Biden spoke did him no favors either but was less pronounced than the Vice President's reactions.)

All of that non-verbal communication, which, in each case, seemed to communicate the Democratic candidate's disdain for his Republican rival, was caught on camera thanks to the ever-present use of the split screen by the TV networks broadcasting the debate.

And, in each case, how the Democratic candidate acted when they weren't speaking became a major part of the after-action analysis of the debate. In Obama's case, it didn't help that it fit into an existing narrative that he is a little too cool for school; Biden's passion was totally in keeping with his personality although turned up to 11 in the debate.

Now, we can already hear the scolds carping: "Who cares about what they LOOKED like? Focus on what they said!  This isn't theater, it's politics."

But politics -- particularly when it is conducted on a debate stage in front of a viewing audience that numbers in the tens of millions -- is theater.  These debates are made-for- television moments where how you look (Richard Nixon anyone?) or what you do when the camera isn't on you (Al Gore sighing, Rick Lazio confronting Hillary Clinton) often matters as much as what you say.

If voters made their decisions solely on a set of dry policy positions devoid of any personality or (gasp!) theater, we wouldn't need to run the campaign at all. The two parties could simply post their platforms online and let voters choose which one they liked better.  

Of course, that's not how we do things. We choose between candidates, candidates who are more than just policy positions.  Can you really argue that Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2008 because of policy?  Not really -- although Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq did give him the justification to reverse himself on his past denials of interest in running.  

Obama won in 2008 because he came to embody the need for change -- both within the party and the country -- in a way that voters reacted to.  It was a perception of change much more than a set of "change" policies that did that.

All of which is to say that while substance absolutely matters in politics and debates, style does too. 

Which brings us back to Thursday night and Joe Biden.  Make no mistake: Biden's facial expressions will be the lasting image of that debate -- particularly for people who didn't watch it live and will only consume it through the news coverage and/or the inevitable "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Democratic base voters will love how Biden acted (and what he said) -- insisting that after Obama's performance it was exactly what the party needed. For what it's worth, the Democratic strategists we talked to didn't argue about whether Biden won or lost the debate, rather they made the point that he did what he needed to do.

Republicans will loathe Biden's performance -- arguing that he was condescending, disrespectful and bullying. (The Republican National Committee is already out with a web video highlighting Biden's laughs.)

Undecided voters aren't likely to care much either way -- to the extent they even watched a vice presidential debate on a night when the NFL and major league baseball playoffs were on.

But, it seems clear to us that if Biden had toned down the mocking non verbal communication even slightly, we would be talking about him as a clear winner from last night's debate. Since he didn't the after-action analysis seems to have settled on the idea that the debate was essentially a draw.

Democratic strategists will take a draw but going forward Obama and Biden -- as well as every other politician on the planet -- would do well to remember one simple fact: The camera is always watching.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | October 12, 2012