Vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will go head to head tonight in the first and only vice presidential debate before the election.
The vice presidential candidates will sound off on both foreign and domestic topics in the debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Martha Raddatz, a senior foreign affairs correspondent at ABC News, will moderate the debate, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Collen Kelley, associate professor of rhetoric and communication at Penn State Erie, said she expects the focus to be on foreign policy.
Republicans want to get leverage on foreign policy, a strength of President Barack Obama’s, before the final presidential debate, Kelley said.
She said if Republicans re-visit domestic policy, they have to provide specifics for points Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made in the last debate — and they don’t want to put Ryan in that position.
But Kirt Wilson, associate professor of rhetoric and communication arts and sciences, said he suspects the debate will revolve around domestic policy. That’s the strongest line of pursuit for Ryan and Romney, he said.
“The first debate really illustrated that they have a well-thought out plan on how to attack the current administration on domestic policy,” he said.
Kelley had a different take. The first debate was light on substance and heavy on style, Kelley said. She said she expects the debate to be an evaluation of personalities. Since the networks are giving up their most valuable airtime to the debates, there’s a bias toward spectacle, Kelley said.
“These are staged opportunities to vet the character of the candidate,” Kelley said. “They do count if people aren’t looking for substance or asking for accountability of ideas.”
Wilson said the performance itself favors the argumentative, not the educational. That’s one reason Romney did better in the first debate, Wilson said. Obama took on the role of an educator and tried to explain complex policy decisions, while Romney argued for his policies as though making a legal case, Wilson said.
This debate will likely be policy-driven, because both vice presidential candidates are comfortable talking about policy issues, Wilson said. The real test for Biden and Ryan is how they summarize those issues in easy-to-digest sound bytes.
Penn State Political Science Association President Michael Mahon said although this debate isn’t as important as the presidential ones, it’s an insight into the kind of people the presidential candidates pick to advise them.
It’s also a forum where the candidates get to directly address the American people and not just state their ideas, but defend them, Mahon (junior-political science and economics) said.
“In the end, these debates give the people who watch them a much better idea of the candidate’s goals and policy initiatives,” he said.
Most of the research suggests the vice presidential debates don’t have a great impact on the outcome of elections, Wilson said. The presidential debates, however, can set the stage for the rest of the campaign, he said.
“Presidential debates rarely win a candidate an election,” Wilson said, “but they can establish a tone and atmosphere that makes it more easy to win through additional forms of communication and campaign action.”