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United States vice-presidential debate, 2008


United States vice-presidential debate, 2008

Moderated by Gwen Ifill, PBS
Date October 2, 2008
Location Washington University
in St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri
Democratic and Republican
vice presidential nominees

The 2008 United States vice-presidential debate took place on October 2, 2008, between U.S. vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, and Joe Biden, the senior Senator for Delaware, at Washington University in St. Louis, and was moderated by Public Broadcasting Service journalist Gwen Ifill.[1] It was the first such debate to feature a female candidate since the 1984 vice presidential debate. The debate was watched by about 70 million viewers according to Nielsen Media Research, making it the most-watched vice-presidential debate in history.[2] It was only the second presidential or vice-presidential debate to surpass 70 million viewers, the first being the 1980 presidential debate between Governor Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter, which drew nearly 81 million viewers.[3]


  • Venue 1
  • Debate 2
  • Reception 3
  • Moderator Gwen Ifill 4
  • Parody 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, had been offered the opportunity to host the debate, but declined in order to pursue hosting one of the presidential debates.[4] In November 2007 it was announced that Washington University in St. Louis would be the venue for the debate, making the university the only institution, as of 2008, to have hosted three or more presidential debates.[5]


The scene as the vice-presidential debate concludes at the Washington University Field House

The first 90-minute presidential debate was divided into nine 3-minute issue segments, allowing the candidates to discuss selected topics, answer follow-ups from a moderator and directly address each other. The vice-presidential debate format followed that of the first presidential debate, but included questions on all topics and had shorter response and discussion periods.[6][7]

The two candidates had never met before, which was part of the build-up to the debate. Palin said on one of her stump speeches before the debate, "I've never met [Biden] before. But I've been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade."[8] After moderator Gwen Ifill introduced the candidates, where they came out, Palin asked Biden, "Can I call you Joe?" He replied affirmatively.[9] She said at one point, "I may not answer the questions the way the moderator and you want to hear." Critics said she was avoiding the debate itself, while her supporters could make the claim that she was answering the questions to "Joe six-pack" or "hockey moms." She used her inexperience to her advantage by saying, "It's so obvious that I'm a Washington outsider and not used to the ways you guys operate."[9]

Palin spoke in greatest depth about administration, emphasizing instead generalizations about McCain and Palin's plans to reform the ways of Washington. Biden let it be known that he thought at one time McCain was a "maverick," but that is no longer the case.[10]

During the debate Palin made the point of talking about a potential surge strategy in Afghanistan and mentioned the commanding general there as being "McClellan." Pundits criticized Biden's omission of the general's name; he referred to him several times only as the "commanding general in Afghanistan," until it was discovered the General's name is in fact David D. McKiernan.

One of the most memorable moments during the debate came at the end when Biden talked about the tragedy that affected his family when his wife and daughter died and his sons were injured. He explained by saying, "The notion that somehow, because I'm a man, I don't know what it's like to raise two kids alone, I don't know what it's like to have a child you're not sure is going to – is going to make it – I understand [...]." Palin did not react to this, instead, returning to her campaign's platform.[11]


Much interest leading up to the debate stemmed from Governor Palin's poorly handled interviews conducted in the weeks leading up to the event; many of her responses were the brunt of severe criticism,[12][13][14] and a poll in early October from the Pew Research Center showed that the number of people who believed Palin was qualified to serve as president had dropped to 37% from 52% in early September. Consequently, the vice-presidential debate was largely seen as an opportunity for further destruction or redemption on Palin's part. Several polls suggested that Biden had won the debate;[15][16] although, many observers were surprised by Palin's speaking abilities and knowledge of John McCain's policies.[17] CNN polls found Biden won 51 to 36.[18] It is widely agreed that both candidates accurately followed the "do no harm" guideline of vice-presidential debates. James Taylor, professor of political science at the University of San Francisco commented, "[Palin] resuscitated herself, but I'm not sure she did quite enough to do anything for John McCain." He added "Biden demonstrated he knows John McCain better than Sarah Palin does. She couldn't offer rebuttals during the depth of discussions. She read the Cliff Notes on McCain, and Biden has known John McCain."[19]

According to a poll of uncommitted voters conducted immediately after the debate by CBS News and the former Knowledge Network, 46% thought Senator Biden won the debate, 21% thought Governor Palin had won, and 33% thought it was a tie.[20] Fox News Channel held a poll regarding the performance of each candidate, with 51% of the votes in favor of Biden, and 39% in favor of Palin.[21] The Opinion Research Corporation's poll on the debate revealed that 51% of viewers felt Biden had won, while 36% were in favor of Palin. In the same poll, 87% said Biden was capable of fulfilling the duties of the vice presidency, while 42% said Palin is. Palin was considered more likable however, scoring 54% to Biden's 36%.[21] Mark Halperin of Time graded both candidates' performances a B.[22][23]

The event overall was widely described as having little effect on the 2008 presidential race,[16] although a CBS News poll found that the presidential race tightened following the vice-presidential debate, with the Obama-Biden lead falling from 9 points to 4 points.[24]

Moderator Gwen Ifill

Gwen Ifill served as moderator of the debate.

The debate's format offered moderator Gwen Ifill great freedom and power to decide the questions which can cover domestic or international issues.[25] On the day before the debate, it gained wide media attention that Ifill had authored a new book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which was to be released by publisher Doubleday on January 20, 2009, the day of the presidential inauguration.[26] Ifill did not inform the debate commission about her book.[27] Fox News' Washington managing editor Brit Hume claimed Ifill had a "financial stake" in an Obama victory because of the profit she stood to make from her book.[28] "There's not a lot of demand out there for books about the 'Age of [Walter] Mondale' or the 'Age of [John] Kerry,'" said former Indiana Representative John Hostettler in an article in WorldNetDaily.[29] John McCain said he was confident Ifill would do “a totally objective job,” but stated, “Does this help that if she has written a book that’s favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not.”[30] In response to the controversy, Ifill questioned why people assume that her book will be favorable toward Obama, saying "Do you think they made the same assumptions about Lou Cannon [who is white] when he wrote his book about [Ronald] Reagan?".[31]

A national poll was held immediately following the vice-presidential debate, indicating that 95% of viewers felt Ifill was fair and unbiased.[32]


Soon after the debate, a parody was created as the cold open for popular sketch comedy show [33]

The debate sketch sparked a great deal of interest, including a rare response by Joe Biden on ABC's Good Morning America. Biden told host Diane Sawyer "Oh God. I wish I had that much hair." Still unable to stop laughing, Biden said, "These guys are incredible, I don't know what to say."[34]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "U.S. VP debate most-watched in history". CBC News. October 3, 2008. 
  3. ^ McCain-Obama debate draws 52.4 million viewers
  4. ^ "Washington State University passed on vice presidential debate", Associated Press, November 21, 2007.
  5. ^ "Washington University in St. Louis Poised to Host Historic Biden-Palin Vice Presidential Debate, October 2". NewsBlaze. October 1, 2008. Retrieved October 28, 2008. 
  6. ^ """Commission on Presidential Debates Hails 2008 Formats as "Historic Breakthrough. CPD. September 21, 2008. 
  7. ^ Campaigns Agree to Debate Formats
  8. ^ "Palin takes on Biden directly as debate looms". CNN. September 29, 2008. Retrieved May 27, 2010. 
  9. ^ a b Marinucci, Carla (October 7, 2008). "A spirited debate between Biden and Palin". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
  10. ^ "Transcript of Palin, Biden debate". CNN. October 3, 2008. Retrieved May 27, 2010. 
  11. ^,0,7820796.story
  12. ^ "Poll shows Palin might be losing some of her luster", Boston Globe, September 27, 2008
  13. ^ Chivers, C.J. (September 16, 2008). "Georgia Offers Fresh Evidence on War’s Start". The New York Times. Retrieved September 15, 2008. 
  14. ^ Pitney, Nico (September 11, 2008). "Palin's ABC Interview: Stumped On Bush Doctrine".  
  15. ^ Bolstad, Erika Biden won debate, but Palin more likable, poll finds McClatchy Newspapers (October 4, 2008). Retrieved on 10-05-08.
  16. ^ a b Lightman, David Polls: Biden won debate, though Palin did well McClatchy Newspapers (October 4, 2008). Retrieved on 10-05-08.
  17. ^ Vice presidential debate yields a split decision USA Today (October 3, 2008). Retrieved on 10-05-08.
  18. ^ Ref
  19. ^ Ostrom, Mary Anne Analysis: In VP debate, both Palin, Biden 'did no harm' (October 2, 2008). Retrieved on 10-05-08.
  20. ^ Zenilman, Avi (October 2, 2008). "CBS News/Knowledge Networks insta-poll: Biden wins big". Politico. Retrieved October 2, 2008. 
  21. ^ a b "Palin or Joe Biden?",
  22. ^ Halperin, Mark (October 2, 2008). "Debate Report Card: Sarah Palin".  
  23. ^ Halperin, Mark (October 2, 2008). "Debate Report Card: Joe Biden". Time. Retrieved October 2, 2008. 
  24. ^ CBS Poll: Presidential Race Tightens
  25. ^ AP Ifill hits jackpot in moderating VP debate
  26. ^ Ifill's book was no secret Yahoo News, October 1, 2008)
  27. ^ VP debate moderator's impartiality questioned
  28. ^ Ifill should step aside from debate
  29. ^ Debate's moderator has 'blatant conflict of interest'
  30. ^ NYT Moderator’s Planned Book Becomes a Topic of Debate
  31. ^ Questions raised about moderator's impartiality, The Associated Press, October 1, 2008
  32. ^ "Debate poll says Biden won, Palin beat expectations",
  33. ^ a b
  34. ^ "Joe Biden Laughs Uncontrollably Over SNL Veep Debate Skit". The Washington Post. 

External links

  • Commission on Presidential Debates official site
  • Washington University in St. Louis – Vice Presidential Debate 2008 official site
  • Live Feed of the Vice Presidential Debate
  • transcript and video from CNN
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