Winning the post debate

I’ve always told my classes that what matters is not so much the 90 minutes on stage of a debate, but the media consensus that develops afterwards.  That’s surely especially true in a lesser-watched VP debate.

I’ve seen a number of variations on Pence won the debate, but Kaine won the week, and I think that’s right.  Is anybody still talking about Kaine interrupting too much?  (I suppose Fox News is).  Yet, I’ve seen plenty of ongoing discussions of Trump’s outrageous statements, which Kaine hit again and again, if not particularly artfully, and Pence’s willingness to “throw Trump under the bus.”  As a matter of performance, clearly Pence was better.  But there’s only so long performance will last in a news cycle.  And, of course, there’s more attack fodder for the Clinton campaign.  I don’t exactly expect to see Trump ads arguing that Kaine interrupts to much.

Very smart take from Chait:

One might complain with the voters for prioritizing surface appearance over substance. One might also complain with the news media for internalizing voters’ superficiality and feeding it back to them as theater criticism rather than sorting out the underlying claims. But the fact remains that the rules are the rules, and as they exist, there is usually little penalty for lying incessantly as long as you do it with proper body language and a reassuringly manly baritone.

There is, however, an exception to that rule: You should not lie about things that can be easily disproven with short video clips. So, if Pence had simply insisted that Donald Trump’s tax plan would balance the budget and mostly help the middle class, and that he would allow coal plants to spring up everywhere without impacting the climate, and that his plan would crack down on Wall Street, he’d have walked away the undisputed winner. Instead, Pence claimed over and over again that his running mate had never said the things that Tim Kaine was quoting verbatim. It was all too easy for the Hillary Clinton campaign to respond with this devastating video:

The way debates work is that they play out over time, with an initial impression usually overwhelmed by subsequent messages rippling through the media. In this case, whatever small gains Pence made are likely to be canceled out by days of him looking ridiculous. Lying: It usually works! But not always.


Now, this Post piece reads a little too much like Clinton campaign propaganda for me, yet, I do suspect it is basically right:

Sen. Tim Kaine may have awakened Wednesday to poor reviews after the first and only vice-presidential debate, but his acerbic performance in Farmville, Va., revealed that the Clinton campaign’s strategy for these debates extends far beyond the stage.

Armed with pre-planned Web videos, television ads and tweets, the campaign has used key debate moments this week and last as a cudgel against the Republican ticket, showing a level of discipline and organization largely absent from Donald Trump and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s campaign.

But Clinton and Kaine had a larger goal in mind than winning the debates themselves: to create a series of compelling sound bites that they planned to weaponize for the reminder of the campaign. They logged scores of hours of preparation. They recited laundry lists of Trump’s faults. Their clear objective: to record him and his running mate embracing, denying or evading controversial positions that Trump has taken in recorded speeches.

That pattern is likely to continue Sunday at the next presidential debate, Democrats said.

“[Pence] claimed over and over and over again — he claimed, ‘He never said those things!’ ” exclaimed conservative radio host Glenn Beck on Wednesday. “We’re not living in the 1800s. We can go back to the clips on YouTube.”

And, going back to the presidential debate, a nice piece from John Sides on how negative coverage of Trump has really dominated after the debate:

Despite the consensus that Clinton won the debate, Trump has received nearly three times the coverage that Clinton has received.

But that’s not necessarily good news for Trump or bad news for Clinton. Here is a graph capturing how positive or negative that coverage was:

But because media coverage of debates is crucial in how voters interpret them and whether they help or hurt candidates, this trend also suggests that Clinton will ultimately benefit from her performance on Monday night — at least in the short run.

Now, I don’t expect anything at all so dramatic because of the VP debate.  And sure, there are plenty of “Pence won” stories, but on balance, it strikes me that the marginal long-term impact favors Clinton more than Trump.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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