Sen. Biden and Gov. Palin debating in St. Louis
During the first presidential debate last week, CNN used a device called the Perception Analyzer to track audience responses to the candidates. Members of a focus group in Columbus turned the analyzer's dial to the left when they didn't like what they heard, and to the right when they did, which presumes they prefer being right of center. Analysis of the results showed that most of the audience stayed awake for most of the 90-minute-long debate.
Using the Perception Analyzer, focus-group members instantly registered moment-by-moment responses to the candidates' words by rotating the dial from 1 (most negative) to 100 (most positive).
The network deployed the Perception Analyzer again at the vice presidential debate last night at Washington University in St. Louis, only with a twist: CNN turned it into an IQ meter for Gov. Palin, and a foot-in-mouth detector for Sen. Biden.
The Perception Analyzer played a role in the vice presidential debate as well. For Palin, CNN turned it into an IQ meter . . .
. . . while it proved the perfect tool to measure Joe Biden's foot-in-mouth quotient.
In the end, though, the technology didn't tell us any more than the candidates did. Palin showed no palpable IQ deficits, though she did once call her opponent "Sen. Obiden" and she mis-named the general commanding American forces in Afghanistan, not surprising considering her penchant for odd names. Palin also tossed off something worrisome about the Constitution being flexible on the duties of the vice president, which said more about her reading comprehension than whether she could turn out to be a Dick Cheney in lipstick. Biden managed to call the residents of Bosnia Bosniacs, but otherwise he outscored Palin by showing more grasp of concrete detail, while keeping both feet planted firmly on the floor.
Veteran debate watchers wondered whether Palin would perform as poorly as Republican Sen. Dan Quayle had done back in 1988. At the vice presidential debate in Omaha that year, Quayle, trying to counter charges that he was inexperienced, compared himself to the late president Jack Kennedy, who like Quayle had served about 13 years in the House and Senate before running for national office: "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."
Quayle's opponent, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, was ready with a come-back: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."
Lloyd Bentsen delivering his zinger at the 1988 vice presidential debate in Omaha. The Bush-Quayle ticket went on to defeat Dukakis and Bentsen in the election. In retrospect, fears that an unqualified Quayle might have to fill in for George H. W. Bush were unnecessary.
To no one's surprise, last night in St. Louis neither candidate proved to be Jack Kennedy. Neither even came close to channeling Lloyd Bentsen. Fortunately, neither of them looked to be the next Dick Cheney, either. But former Vice President Quayle managed to hold onto his title of "dumber than a sixth grader."
Quayle watched the debate with his own Perception Analyzer in hand, hoping that Sarah Palin would replace him in the annals of politics as the least-likely-to-succeed vice presidential candidate of recent memory (that memory must be fairly short, as Spiro Agnew's name rarely comes up).
Dan Quayle, who proved himself dumber than a sixth grader by misspelling potato during a 1992 visit to a Trenton elementary school, watched the Biden-Palin debate, Perception Analyzer in hand, hoping that Sarah Palin would take the title away from him.
Quayle's hopes were dashed, though, when Palin did not repeat her earlier claim that she was experienced in foreign policy because she lived close to Russia, nor did she attribute her grasp of economics to the fact that she could see the ATM at Wasilla's Northrim Bank from her backyard.
CNN's focus group of undecided voters -- the ones who stayed awake -- preferred Biden's performance to Palin's, and the women in the group seemed to like both candidates a bit better than the men did.
But to put all this into perspective, politicians aren't popular with anyone right now, and the more they say, the less popular they seem to become. The New York Times reported that soon-to-be-former-president George Bush's digital-rating is at an all-time low of 22%, in part because he keeps acting as if he is still in charge. So in comparison, all four candidates in the present race did O.K.
But even though CNN's focus group also preferred Biden and Palin's performance to what McCain and Obama had done the week before, to the rest of us the lesson of the vice presidential debate remains clear even without the analysis provided by digital technology: the candidates for president better stay healthy.
Not smarter than a sixth grader:
In 1992, while visiting a classroom spelling bee at a Trenton elementary school, Vice President Dan Quayle told 12-year-old William Figueroa, who had spelled the word potato correctly, "You're close, but you left something off. The 'e' on the end." To be polite, the sixth grader added an 'e,' but reporters accompanying Quayle weren't so generous. In any case, fears that an intellectually-unqualified Quayle might become president proved to be unnecessary, but Quayle never lived down his title as dumbest modern vice president.