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Tonight’s the Night: Veeps Get Their Moment in the Campaign Spotlight

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Commander-in-Chief's Ball in downtown Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball in downtown Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009. Photo by Senior Airman Kathrine McDowell, USAF. PD.

This week, the Vice Presidential candidates get their moment in the campaign spotlight. The commentariate has been abuzz with how well Joe Biden must do to make up for President Barack Obama’s poor debate performance last week. Going into the debate, voter expectations of Biden’s performance are low. According to a Pew Research Center poll released yesterday, only 34 percent of registered voters think Biden would do a better job in the veep debate, compared to 40 percent who said they thought Paul Ryan would do so.  Respondents also said they held a less favorable view of Biden compared to Ryan (39 percent vs. 44 percent). But the reality is, the debate tonight is not likely to do much to change voter preferences or the election outcome. According to a new Gallup analysis of trends of the vice presidential debates since the first one in 1976, the chances the debate will have a major impact are small. In four elections in which Gallup conducted daily tracking polls (1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008), the median change in voter support following the vice presidential debate was only one percentage point each for the Republican and Democratic ticket. That said, if Ryan does well, it will certainly add momentum to Mitt Romney’s recently resuscitated campaign. If Biden does well, it may help the Obama campaign recover from setbacks in the last week. Of course the media spin on the debate is what will likely have the most influence and the duration of coverage in the news cycle could also influence how much impact the debate has.

Even though the debate is not likely to matter in terms of changing voter preferences, we’ll still indulge your political junkie pleasures with a rundown of some of the most memorable veep debate moments.

The first Vice Presidential debate occurred 36 years ago this week. On October 14, 1976, Bob Dole, President Gerald Ford’s running mate, debated Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s running mate. During the debate, Dole implied that all of the nation’s wars in the 20th century were partisan actions. Dole charged:

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 it up the other day. If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.

Mondale retorted: “I think Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight.”

There wasn’t a vice presidential debate in 1980 – George H.W. Bush declined Walter Mondale’s offer to debate, but in 1984, Bush squared off against Geraldine Ferraro. In one particularly memorable exchange, Bush said:

Let me help you with the difference between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon. Iran, we were held by a foreign government. In Lebanon, you had a wanton terrorist action where the government opposed it.

In response, Ferraro rejoined, “I almost resent your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy,” to which the audience applauded.

In the debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, Quayle attempted to convey that he was qualified to take over should something happen to Bush:

I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.

Bentsen rejoined:

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

The 1992 vice presidential debate included Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, who delivered the most memorable line of the evening when he asked “Who am I? Why am I here?” in his opening statement. Stockdale also found himself isolated at times from the exchange between Quayle and Al Gore. 

The veep debates in 1996 and 2000 didn’t produce any major gaffes or memorable moments. In 1996, Jack Kemp had no interest in playing the role of attack dog, and in 2000, Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney often agreed with each other during a rather civil debate.  That said, Al Gore began the 1996 debate joking, “I’d like to start with offering you a deal, Jack. If you won’t use the football stories, I won’t tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement.” In 2000 debate, Lieberman revived Ronald Reagan’s famous question:

“Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?’. Most people would say ‘yes.’ And I’m pleased to say that I see, Dick, from the newspapers that you’re better off than you were eight years ago too.”

Cheney responded, “And I can tell you Joe that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it,” to which both candidates and the audience responded with laughter and applause. 

When Cheney matched up with John Edwards in 2004, he used the opportunity to attack Edwards’ absenteeism from key votes in the Senate. Cheney remarked, “The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.” In another memorable exchange over the issue of a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Edwards brought up Cheney’s lesbian daughter in stating his positing:

Now, as to this question, let me say first that I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her…And I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and so does John Kerry. I also believe that there should be partnership benefits for gay and lesbian couples in long-term committed relationships but we should not use the Constitution to divide this country. No state for the last 200 years has ever had to recognize another state’s marriage. This is using the Constitution as a political tool and it’s wrong.

Cheney curtly responded:

Well, Gwen, let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter. I appreciate that very much.

While the Biden-Palin debate in 2008 was the most watched vice presidential debate, it didn’t produce many memorable moments for either candidate, save perhaps for Sarah Palin asking, “Can I call you Joe?” when they met on stage.

Will tonight produce any memorable moments? Tune in to find out. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@Miller_Center and @CarahOng) as we will once again be live tweeting the debate.

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