Robert Munson has heard the conventional wisdom: Vice presidential debates aren’t supposed to matter. But in an election this close, he and millions of others tuned in Thursday to a candidate faceoff that many said may not have changed their vote, but firmed their resolve about just how much is at stake.
Munson, a self-described conservative who drove into the heart of largely liberal Seattle to watch the debate broadcast at a civic hall, came hoping to hear Rep. Paul Ryan champion the values he believes in. But when it began, even hearing stands taken by Vice President Joe Biden that he firmly disagrees with held some value.
“Watching this debate and all the information you glean on this very important election, ... of the two very different approaches of where this country is heading, I think it was very important,” said Munson, 69, a retired nonprofit manager and former Army captain.
On a night that offered television viewers two baseball playoff games and an NFL matchup, many voters across the country nonetheless made room Thursday for 90 minutes of pugnacious debate, the only one scheduled between Biden and Ryan. A little more than a week after a presidential debate that lifted the candidacy of Mitt Romney and knocked President Barack Obama’s campaign back a step, this debate, which wasn’t supposed to matter, took on a heightened importance.
From a bar in Las Vegas to a hotel in Janesville, Wis., from a college campus in Savannah, Ga., to a gathering of retirees in Chicago, and in the crowds that gathered outside the debate hall itself in Danville, Ky., voters seized on the debate as much more than theater or politics as usual.
Still, there was disagreement on whether Biden or Ryan did better framing the issues, whether the vice president was too argumentative or justifiably aggressive, and whether his younger challenger was up to the task.
The civic hall crowd in Seattle erupted into cheers for every verbal jab and grin by Biden. The vice president “was extremely aggressive and he needed to be,” said Art Segal, a 60-year-old substitute teacher, who leans Democratic but also says Obama has broken many promises, such as offshore oil exploration drilling.
Before the debate Segal, who thought Obama had been unprepared for the first debate, said he was looking for Biden to “deconstruct” Ryan’s arguments. He was not disappointed Thursday night.
“Biden’s my guy,” he said.
But that sentiment was far from unanimous.
Gwen Swaney, an 82-year-old Republican who lives in Pittsburgh, said she came into the debate as a committed Romney-Ryan voter, and found Biden’s conduct puzzling.
“I expected a little more from Biden. There was no reason for him to keep laughing and making fun of Ryan,” Swaney said. “I thought Biden was rude and crude.”
Swaney said she felt Biden was trying to intimidate Ryan, “and it didn’t work.”
The partisan split was similar in Georgia, where 35 students at Savannah State University watched Biden and Ryan at a debate party sponsored by a political science club. After pizza, chicken wings and mocktails of ginger ale and cherry juice, the group cheered and laughed as an animated Biden rebutted Ryan for attacks the vice president called “a bunch of malarkey” and “full of stuff.”
“It definitely felt like a role reversal” from last week’s presidential debate, when Mitt Romney was considered the aggressor, said Abrigale Johnson, a 23-year-old senior history major. “Biden’s style was similar to Mitt Romney’s – it was on the attack.”
Jadon Forbes, a 22-year-old senior studying international comparative politics, said he went into the debate believing that Biden needed to “be the spark plug,” needed to recharge the faith of Democratic voters. The vice president delivered, he said.
“He was blunt, but I don’t think he was too blunt,” Forbes said of Biden. “He took the formality down a little with his commentary. He definitely kept the energy up and kept Ryan on his toes.”
But elsewhere in town, Rachel Dodsworth, 25, saw and heard the same debate very differently. A member of the Savannah Area Young Republicans, Dodsworth said she felt like Ryan came off as particularly strong on foreign policy and helped defend Romney’s plan for growing the economy by cutting tax rates and closing loopholes.
And while Ryan, like Romney, hedged on giving details of how to pay for those cuts, Dodsworth defended his answer that the president’s job was to provide a basic framework and let Congress hash out the details.
“You could see how he was cool and collected and that he can be at the table and do the job,” said Dodsworth, a web consultant.
Biden came across as too aggressive, Dodsworth said. But she wondered whether either candidates’ presentation will make a difference with voters.
“In the end I think it’s going to boil down to Obama and Romney and who the American people think can best lead us to job creation,” she said.
Many of the voters who tuned in Thursday said they did so with one or two particular issues in mind. For Johnson, the Savannah State student, it was concern about government grants she’s counting on to help for her next step, either law school or working toward a master’s degree. She found Ryan evasive on questions about what he would do to fund education.
For Mary Lou Shadle, a 77-year-old former social worker who watched with nearly 30 other seniors at the Montgomery Place Continuing Care Retirement Community on Chicago’s South Side, the issue was entitlement programs, particularly protecting the Medicare she counts on. She came away convinced more than ever that a Romney administration would endanger them.
For Louis Pendygraft, a 53-year-old unemployed construction worker who came to watch the debate in Danville, the issue is jobs and the economy. The debate cemented his plan to vote for Romney and Ryan.
“It’s the small business people who make the world go around,” Pendygraft said. “I think Romney, because he is a businessman, can get the economy going stronger,” said Pendygraft, a Republican
Robert Strauss, a registered independent and professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said he didn’t think the debate will sway many voters.
“They were both vigorous. They both avoided answering questions. Would I watch a rerun of this? I don’t think so,” Strauss said, adding that what he saw was about what he expected of both men.
But others, like those who came out to watch on a giant outdoor screen set up on the Centre College campus where the debate was held, said the faceoff had intensified their decision-making process.
Don Matherly, a 63-year-old Navy veteran who lives in Danville and voted for Obama in 2008, said he had been leaning toward Romney, but remained conflicted even after the debate.
“I’m to the point where I don’t even know if I want to vote,” said Matherly, who called the debate a draw. It would have helped, he said, if the candidates had talked more about how to create jobs.
Others in the crowd, though, said the debate affirmed their values, even if it doesn’t change minds.
The Rev. William Jenkins, an ardent supporter of Obama and Biden and pastor of St. James AME Church in Danville, said he came out to support a candidate who gives voice to his concerns about healthcare. Jenkins, 59, a military veteran and disabled railroad worker who has been hospitalized for prostate cancer, heart bypass surgery and a stroke, said without the healthcare reforms, he simply couldn’t get insurance.
“I’ve had enough illness to last one man a lifetime,” he said. “I can’t buy insurance. Who would insure me? This truly matters to me.”
Not far away, Martha Guy, 75, of Cincinnati, agreed only on the importance of the voters’ choice. Guy was visibly angered by what she saw as Biden “rudely” interrupting Ryan during the debate. “Can’t he shut up?,” said Guy, a retired business owner. Guy said if her fellow citizens just got the chance to hear Ryan, they might realize that a vote for Romney would free businesses to create jobs.
“The people who are on the dole, who sit at home and collect their checks, they are the ones who will vote for Obama,” Guy said.
Associated Press writers Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga.; Michelle Nealy in Chicago; Manuel Valdes in Seattle and Roger Alford and Dylan Lovan in Danville, Ky. contributed to this report.