Biden, Palin, and The Tone

 Posted by  Tom Niblock

VP Debate Impressions From Robertson Hall on the Princeton University Campus....

Toward the end of tonight’s debate, moderator Gwen Ifill asked how each candidate, as Vice President, would change the tone in Washington D.C.  The question was a good one, not the least because the difference in tone between the two candidates at tonight’s debate gave the voters clearer impressions of their strengths and weaknesses.

Governor Palin had a bright and cheery tone.  It fits her background well and allows her to relate to people on a personal level.  She was able to find the camera immediately and speak directly to the American people on most of her answers, a skill matched only by Governor Huckabee in the Republican primary debates.

Unfortunately, there is nothing bright and cheery about nuclear weapons, unstable countries, or the proper role for American diplomacy in the world.  These are weighty subjects that demand serious attention, and Governor Palin’s demeanor was ill-suited toward them this evening.  She seems more comfortable talking about energy independence, small business policy, and education.

In contrast, Senator Biden gave an august performance.  His voice was gravelly, worn, and weathered.  He projected an aura of confidence and a command of detail when discussing foreign policy and economic crises, the most important issues of the day.  He showed great skill with debate strategy by using compliments to highlight distinctions between Governor Palin’s and Senator McCain’s positions.

Still, Senator Biden tended to use too many numbers.  Even careful listeners can only absorb so many statistics at once, and some of his arguments on economic policy failed to resonate because they were so dense.

The crowd in Robertson Hall was highly animated, and not just because Newark mayor Cory Booker and religion professor Cornel West joined our merry band of graduate students.  Governor Palin was incessantly mocked tonight.  The crowd was hostile toward her from the debate’s earliest moments.  It seemed to expect a monumental error. 

Senator Biden received polite applause, especially toward the end when he restated the purpose for Obama’s campaign, to re-energize the American Dream and restore America’s faith in politics.  Prominent observers have written that McCain’s campaign seems to lack a cohesive purpose.  While Governor Palin was charming at times, it remains an open question whether her performance helped him to define one.

The writer is a second year graduate student in public policy and international relations in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from Nevada, Iowa.  His blog on religion and politics can be found at


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The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

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