Vice Presidential Debate Watching Party

By - Nuhu Bisalla, PSFSHS, 2008/09

On October 2, 2008, the Political Science Department of Georgia State University in conjunction with its Freshman-Sophomore Honor Society (PSFSHS) hosted a debate-watching party for the sole, 2008 vice-presidential debate. The main debate participants included the Republican candidate Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska and her Democratic rival Joe Biden, the senior Senator from Delaware. The night was a thoroughly entertaining and informative affair, attended by students, faculty, and members of the general public.

The event began at 7:30 pm inside the University Commons main conference room. A steady stream of attendees quickly filled the room to maximum capacity and feasted on mountains of pizza, a variety of snacks, and an assortment of sodas and other soft drinks. Key speakers among the audience of roughly 140 included the event’s moderator, Dr. Amy Steigerwalt, as well as Dr. William Downs, Dr. Ryan Carlin, Dr. Sarah Gershon, Dr. John Duffield, and Dr. Rich Engstrom, all of the Political Science Department.

Pre-debate speeches highlighted key areas for consideration. Dr. Downs talked about three “C”s: Context, Canada, and Confidence.  Essentially, he diagnosed the relative unimportance of vice-presidential nominees over time. He recalled Vice-Presidential quotes from John Adams, the first ‘Veep’, who famously said, “the position of Vice-President is the most insignificant office ever created by man,” and John Garner who stated that “the Vice-Presidency is not worth a pitcher of warm p----!” Dr. Downs then pointed out that Canada’s own Prime Ministerial debates were being held simultaneously on the night. However, as a measure of global interest in the US elections particularly in the shadow of looming worldwide economic disaster, tracking data showed that most Canadians would be watching our own vice-presidential debate. Finally, he talked about confidence, specifically regarding Gov. Palin’s bruised image in the light of recent unflattering media excursions that seemed to expose a limited intellect. He wondered whether the sassy, brassy Sarah Palin seen initially at the Republican National Convention and subsequently with adoring crowds on the campaign trail would return.

Next up was Dr. Carlin who focused on three potential issues where bold ideas might score political points. Among them was the long-standing US economic embargo of Cuba, Immigration reform, and Trade (Agreements). Dr. Gershon followed with a discussion on Gender stereotypes and their influence on the candidates. She mentioned the “double-bind,” a situation in which women running for electoral office are often confronted with a choice to either present an expected traditional, compassionate, “female” image or to channel the desired “male” image of strength and competence in national defense. Conversely, she underscored Joe Biden’s problem in gauging the right tone for the night, suggesting that a hard-line against Ms. Palin might turn voters off, akin to “hitting a girl,” an acknowledged societal taboo.

Dr Duffield then took a stab at the candidates’ Foreign Policy credentials.  Expecting to be underwhelmed on substance, he instead looked for the principals to play up personal style and the appearance of looking presidential. Dr. Engstrom came up next and summed up the candidates’ relative strengths; in essence, Ms. Palin’s socially conservative, pro-life status, her folksy, Washington-outsider status, and her female status in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s presidential demise. For Mr. Biden, it was experience, foreign affairs, and also his rust belt, blue-collar roots from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Final pre-debate footnotes were provided by Dr. Steigerwalt, who talked about the Supreme Court stakes, with an aging bench and the next president’s probable role in reshaping the court’s fundamental outlook for a generation or longer. Dr. Downs brought attention to the controversy surrounding a book project by the debate’s moderator, Gwen Ifill. He wondered whether critics’ attempts to neutralize Ms. Ifill by labeling her as biased towards Barack Obama would be effective.

The debate started at 9pm. Afterward, a question and answer session was hosted by Saleena Siraj, Mariela Rodriguez, and Shania King of the PSFSHS. A variety of topics was discussed ranging from the impending socialization of US financial markets, to the merits and demerits of trickle-down economics. The general consensus was that Sarah Palin’s performance had been slightly canned but that she had effectively held her own, and that Joe Biden had connected well with viewers. Without a doubt, the winner of the night was the throng of visitors who participated, became informed, and left the hall a little more enlightened about the historic election of 2008. The show ended around 11 pm.