Poll gives Biden, Ryan poor-to-middling marks ahead of debate

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Asheville, N.C., this month. Biden will debate Republican vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan on Thursday.
(Chuck Burton / Associated Press Photos)

When Joe Biden and Paul D. Ryan take the stage for Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, it won’t exactly be a contest between two beloved or widely admired political figures.

A new Pew survey found the incumbent Democrat was viewed more unfavorably (51%) than favorably (39%) by those sampled. Biden’s image is much less positive than it was shortly before his 2008 debate with then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, according to Pew research.

Biden’s poor standing is not terribly surprising. The vice presidency -- playing proverbial second fiddle to the most powerful man on the planet -- is a job that inherently diminishes its occupant. Democrat Al Gore and Republican George H.W. Bush both paled in the shadow of their larger-than-life bosses, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, and struggled politically as a result.


Biden’s problem is compounded by a tendency toward verbal stumbles; most recently he was forced to back-and-fill after declaring that the middle class had been “buried” for the last four years -- roughly the period he and President Obama have been in office. Biden later said he was referring to the policies of Ryan and his presidential running mate, Mitt Romney. By then, however, the damage was done.

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If there is a bright side for Biden, it is the fairly low expectations he faces heading into his Kentucky debate with Ryan. Only about a third of those surveyed by Pew expected Biden to do the better job; 40% said they expected Wisconsin congressman Ryan to turn in a superior debate performance.

The dynamic is not unlike 2004. Vice President Dick Cheney was not terribly well-liked when he debated John Edwards and was expected to suffer in comparison to North Carolina’s then-senator, a former trial lawyer with a gift for persuasive oratory. Cheney more than held his own, however, and was widely considered the winner of the evening.

It is a performance the Obama campaign is hoping to see repeated: Cheney’s showing braked the momentum that Edwards’ running mate, Democrat John F. Kerry, had gained after a lackluster first debate performance by President George W. Bush just about a week earlier.

Ryan, not surprisingly, is a less well-known commodity than Biden, who twice ran for president and served 36 years in the Senate before becoming vice president.


Just over 4 in 10 of those surveyed, 44%, viewed Ryan favorably, compared with 40% who had an unfavorable view.

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The first-time national candidate has spent much less time in the campaign spotlight, though he is a very well known figure within the Washington Beltway as one of the GOP’s leading policy thinkers. His speech to last month’s Republican National Convention was well reviewed, though Democrats and independent fact-checkers pounced on several omissions to question Ryan’s veracity.

A separate survey found that 54% of those asked said they are very likely to watch the vice presidential debate, a considerable drop in interest from four years ago, when 69% said they were very likely to tune in to see Biden and Palin on stage.

The national Pew survey was conducted Oct. 4-7 among 1,511 adults, including 1,201 registered voters, with an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, and 3.3 percentage points for registered voters.

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Twitter: @markzbarabak