This Thursday the eyes of the nation and world will be focused on Danville, Kentucky as Centre College proudly hosts the 2012 vice presidential debate between Congressman Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden. Coming fresh off the heels of last week's opening debate between Governor Romney and President Obama, where Romney had an unexpectedly strong showing, the upcoming vice presidential debate is all the more critical to shaping the campaign narrative this October.
For Congressman Ryan, this debate will provide several important opportunities. First and foremost, he will of course be looking to build on the momentum generated by Romney's strong showing at the recent Denver debate. He will be expected to double down on making the case for his ticket's vision of the appropriate role of government in the economy and American society. It is also an opportunity for him to display his "wonk credentials" in discussing the budget, taxes, and the deficit, especially given that it was a key source of disagreement between Romney and Obama in the first debate. Perhaps most importantly for his political future, however, Ryan will have the opportunity to repair some of the damage to his reputation as a "straight-shooter" that was caused by his performance at the Republican National Convention, which was widely deemed by independent fact-checkers as a little less-than-factual.
For Vice President Biden, the pressure is high to halt the Romney-Ryan debate momentum. I imagine that he will attempt to compensate for President Obama's passive performance last week by being all the more eager to attack Ryan's (and Romney's) record and highlight the likely repercussions of the "Ryan budget" on a host of issues from Medicare to unemployment benefits to student loans. As the Obama-Biden ticket is now "playing defense" in managing public perceptions of the debate, he will want to do everything he can to change the campaign narrative. His biggest challenge will be to do this effectively while avoiding a major "gaffe," something he has been known for in the past.
Political scientists rightly remind us that, with a few important exceptions, presidential debates have rarely played a decisive role in determining the ultimate outcome of presidential elections. This is even more the case for vice presidential debates. Thomas Holbrook, in his 1996 analysis of the effect of presidential campaigns on electoral outcomes, found that there is virtually no historical impact of vice presidential debates in terms of polling or eventual outcomes. Not even Lloyd Bentsen's famous "You're no Jack Kennedy" line in the 1988 VP debate managed to budge the needle of public opinion very much. It is important to remember, though, that just because debates historically have not had a dramatic impact on the outcome of presidential elections, it certainly does not mean that they are irrelevant. In my view, vice presidential debates are unique and important for two key reasons.
First, voters vote for the names at the top of the ticket. Thus, vice presidential candidates have a certain degree of "wiggle room" in their debate performances that the presidential candidates themselves do not enjoy. It often makes for a livelier and more energetic exchange. It has been observed that one of the primary roles of a vice presidential candidate is to be the "attack dog" of the campaign, doing the heavy lifting with the mudslinging so that the presidential candidate can afford to stay a little more "above the fray." As a result, we may get a vice presidential debate that is a little more critical, frank, and realistic about the ideological differences between these tickets than we got in the first debate between Romney and Obama, where Romney defied expectations by portraying himself as a reasonable moderate instead of the Tea Party warrior we've seen through most of the campaign.
Second, we should remember that vice presidential candidates are potentially only a "heartbeat away from the presidency." Yes, presidential candidates select vice presidential candidates that will help them balance the ticket and maximize their electoral prospects. However, they also select individuals who, in their view, are fit to assume the office of the presidency should the need unexpectedly arise. Debates allow us to get a look at the caliber and temperaments of the candidates as they perform in a situation of intense pressure. From this we can infer the sorts of personal qualities valued by the presidential candidates who picked them, which may speak to their priorities and styles of governance once in office.
Finally, no matter what happens at the 2012 vice presidential debate this week, it will make history for one important reason: both Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan are devout Roman Catholics. Never before have two Catholics debated each other in a televised presidential or vice presidential debate. Several weeks ago, debate moderator Martha Raddatz petitioned her Twitter followers for debate questions. This was my recommendation: "Vice President Biden, Congressman Ryan, you are both faithful Catholics and yet you both have widely different political beliefs. Please briefly describe how your faith informs your politics and, given that you come to very different political conclusions, what can that teach us about the role of religion in politics today?" This year we have the most religiously diverse set of presidential tickets ever and thus I believe that a question along those lines would be appropriate and timely for voters of a country that is becoming increasingly polarized along religious-secular lines.