Who won last night's vice presidential debate strictly on the basis of TV impressions — all those little seemingly trivial things that add up to one big major thing, namely victory. (I'd like to get Julia Louis-Dreyfus' opinion on all this, but she is unavailable.)
Best teeth: Who would ever imagine a dentist could win a debate? A dentist couldn't — but the splendid touches he/she adds to someone's bridgework can certainly do remarkable things. Joe Biden's magnificent teeth will be with us forever. Bravo, dentist, wherever you are.
Best combative stance, aka, the “Rocky Marciano” debate award: Aggression is one of those things we all remember the morning after as well as the night of — the candidate who charges into the ring and keeps swinging away. This can cut a couple of ways with viewers at home ("Jeez, Mabel, that Biden guy sure is aggressive” or “Jeez, Mabel, that Biden guy is ruder than my boss"), but it truly does leave viewers with a sense that something raw and visceral is under way. Of course, we speak here of Biden. He kept charging even while Paul Ryan was talking, and when Paul Ryan stopped talked he charged into the dead space with another flurry of jabs, undercuts and roundhouse rights. It was borderline nutty, and of course rude, but it played very well to the base, infuriated with President Obama's A-Rod performance of last week. It was a tonic for them, certainly.
Best reaction shots: Ah, yes, the reaction shot. This is that subtle or not-so-subtle facial expression (or vocal one) that a candidate makes in response to a statement the other one makes. It plays huge on the TV screen at home, and can be effective because rather than pay attention to what Candidate A is saying, you're paying attention to what Candidate B is doing. This was Biden's core strategy: the Cynical Smile. That wide happy laugh-out-loud grin that says that was the funniest darned thing he ever heard. Now this would be effective if what he had just heard was in fact funny. But it was not. This was not a sitcom, Mr. Biden, and you were not a member of the studio audience. It was a debate and the Cynical Smile hand was overplayed — way overplayed.
Best sincere look: Looking sincere is an art. It works this way. You look into the camera, soften your brow, smile every so slightly, and modulate your voice just so as to give the impression that something deep within your very soul is about to emerge, and well, viewers at home just have to pay attention to that, don't they? Ryan's story about “Bean” was one such moment, and his closing statement another. While Ryan almost never played the Smile card or Teeth card and played the Smirk card only a few times, it made his Sincere Look card even more potent. Therefore...
And so friends, we now come to the verdict. It was a good lively entertaining debate by two spirited candidates. Ryan had his moments, admittedly not all that many TV ones, and Biden his moments, too. But a couple of things happened last night. First Martha Raddatz, the moderator, did a very good job of getting the candidates off their precooked spin when she could. But the debate, particularly the middle part, got away from her. That didn't help either candidate because it effectively permitted Biden's worst excesses- and let him build an impression that he was steamrollering the other guy.
Second. Biden lost all energy toward the end, or so it seemed. In reality, he probably just downshifted, and said to himself: OK, time to get serious, “don’t play the Smile Card anymore lest people think I smile too much.” But it left the impression with viewers that two Bidens turned up last night, the smiling guy and the tired old guy. Ryan's energy, by contrast, seemed to build a bit.
Therefore I declare the first and only vice presidential debate in terms of pure TV impression ...
. . . a tie.