So the debate between Sarah Palin and That Other Guy is over. (You can still find our the debate liveblog here, if you missed it.) Both candidates cleared the almost-impossible-to-miss bars set for them, Joe Biden not melting into a puddle of gaffes, Palin not turning into a version of her SNL parody. She was confident and assertive (if not very specific or interested in answering the questions posed), he was controlled and disciplined (if, especially for the first half of the debate, he seemed fairly shut down as a result). He cried, she winked; they both attacked the top of the ticket more than each other.
I’m always leery of attempts by pundits afterward to declare who won the debate. Partly because it always devolves into cliches. (“There was no knockout blow,” someone declares after every debate ever held. When is the last time you heard someone say “This was a knockout blow. This election is over”?)
But mainly because—well, what does winning a debate mean? Does it mean seeming to dominate your opponent, being in command? Does it mean being more likeable? Does it mean making more of your audience want to vote for you? Beating expectations? These don’t all go hand in hand, and when a network polls its viewers—”Who won tonight’s debate?”—different respondents will take the question to mean different things.
In other judged competitions—ice skating, American Idol—judging may be subjective, but at least there are agreed-on criteria (e.g., Who sang better?). But in a debate “winning” can mean anything from being the best speaker to being the most improved. It’s entirely possible to think that one candidate won the debate, as a performance, yet decide you want to vote for the other one.
Thus last night, in the insta-polls, we got all sorts of definitions of who won. The CNN and CBS snap polls gave it to Biden, Fox News’ to Palin. But on the other hand, on CNN, while a slight majority said that Biden performed better, an overwhelming majority said that Palin did better than they expected. If that was her political goal here, then did she win? Or is it pointless to say who “won” until Nov. 4?
So, ahem: Who won the debate? And why?