Dan Quayle, the vice president under George H.W. Bush
and a master of malapropisms, once said "One word
the responsibility of any vice-president,
and that one word is 'to be prepared.'" Quayle's
embarrassing gaffe, neither his first nor his last,
can teach us two things about being a presidential running-mate.
First, you need to be prepared. Second, you cannot be
In Thursday's debate, both Governor Sarah Palin and
Senator Joe Biden seemed prepared to give intelligent
responses to most topics. Perhaps more importantly,
neither of them said anything particularly cringe-worthy.
Even though both candidates seem to have the most fundamental
qualifications to be vice-president, the two candidates
showcased differing styles that will compete for voters'
affection. They subtly highlighted geographical differences
and serious philosophical disputes.
Governor Palin focused on her connections to the American
heartland and conservative philosophy. The governor
was born in Idaho and has spent most of her life in
Alaska. Palin talked about how her experience as Alaska's
governor makes her particularly qualified to deal with
energy related issues.
In a telling exchange, she even demeaned Senator Biden
and other "Eastern" politicians as hampering
the expansion of oil drilling in other regions of the
country. She also used religious language extensively
and colloquially. Palin was playing to one segment of
the middle class: a group of predominantly Protestant,
socially conservative Midwesterners that she is emulating
and praising to help win the election.
Biden targets working-class voters
Biden comes from a very different background and emphasized
his roots and beliefs to attract a different section of
the middle class. Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania,
a former coal-mining town. During the debate, he spoke
extensively about his experiences interacting with working-class
people and the humbleness of his origins.
Biden's Roman Catholicism and less pronounced accent served
to further differentiate him from Palin. While Palin appeared
to derive purported expertise in energy policy and family
values from her past, Biden used his origins to connect
him to Americans struggling to make ends meet. His appeal
will likely be strongest amongst families struggling to
deal with the decline of industrial American and members
of Catholic communities.
Palin stays casual, Biden gets personal
The language and speech patterns used by the candidates
also emphasized the differences between them. Palin
spoke with a noticeable accent. This accent, an interesting
and distinctive blend that sounds both Midwestern and
Alaskan, may help her connect with voters who see it
as a mark of her solidarity with the electorate. Palin
also favored informality in her speaking style. She
dropped the "g"'s off of the end of her words
and her now famous catchphrase, "you betcha,"
appeared consistently. Governor Palin also used specific
language to emphasize with the middle class. She referred
to the everyday American male as "Joe Six-Pack"
and talked about economic hardships though the quotidian
experience of "soccer moms."
The unforgettable "hockey moms" of her convention
speech also made an appearance in Palin's talking points.
By mentioning them, Palin is probably trying to boost
her Nordic credentials and her "tough-mother-figure"
In contrast, Biden spoke with almost no accent and instead
used personal examples to connect with average Americans.
He talked about families that could not fill up their
gas tanks, and his son's military service. Perhaps most
touchingly, Biden recounted his first wife's death in
a car accident and his subsequent struggles as a single
Biden, like Palin, was making a specific appeal to a
segment of the American population. He did not try to
play up his folksiness, and seemed to represent best
the middle class of the East and West Coasts of the
In conclusion, both Biden and Palin appeared to be competent
and informed in the vice-presidential debate, but their
styles could not have been more different. Partially
informed by their backgrounds and greatly influenced
by the audience they were trying to court, the two candidates
used specific rhetoric and stories to convey their message.
All that remains to be seen is which narrative will
best capture the hearts and minds of Americans come