Media have repeatedly asserted Palin faces "low" or "lowered" expectations in debate, despite praise of her debate skills

››› ››› MATT GERTZ, MEREDITH ADAMS, MARK BOCHKIS & MORGAN WEILAND

Several media figures have asserted that Gov. Sarah Palin faces "low" or "lowered" expectations in the upcoming vice-presidential debate and that she therefore faces a lower bar for victory than Sen. Joe Biden. They have made these assertions despite criticism by at least one member of the media over the media's setting of a lower bar for Palin and despite praise of her performance in the Alaska gubernatorial debate by others in the media and by McCain campaign surrogate Mitt Romney.

Several members of the media, including MSNBC anchors and guests and an NPR reporter, have asserted that Gov. Sarah Palin faces "low" or "lowered" expectations in the upcoming vice-presidential debate and that she therefore faces a lower bar for victory than Sen. Joe Biden. They have made these assertions -- that she will win if she simply beats (lowered) expectations -- despite criticism by at least one member of the media over the media's setting of a lower bar for Palin, despite praise of her performance in the Alaska gubernatorial debate by others in the media, and despite McCain campaign surrogate Mitt Romney's touting of her debate skills. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, stated on the September 29 broadcast of NBC's Today: "I think if you looked at her debate performance as the governor of Alaska, you're gonna see a person who can hold her own. She's a very competent, well-spoken, thoughtful individual, and I think she's gonna do real well." Nonetheless, Romney also remarked on the benefit to her of the "creat[ion of] low expectations."

Examples of media figures asserting or suggesting that Palin stands to benefit from low expectations:

  • During a discussion of Palin on the September 28 edition of Fox News Sunday, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson asserted: "But for this debate, no one is going to benefit more from low expectations than Sarah Palin. She has got about the lowest expectations. People think she's going to come on and babble incoherently, and I think she's going to do just fine."
  • During the 8 a.m. ET hour of the September 28 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Alex Witt asked, "How about this: Are expectations so low for Palin that she can't help but do better than what people expect?" Reuters Washington correspondent Jon Decker replied, "[E]xpectations are extremely low for her going into the Thursday night's debate. You like expectations low going into a debate, that's for sure. And if she can beat those expectations, it will be a good night for Sarah Palin."
  • During the 9 a.m. ET hour of the September 28 edition of MSNBC Live, Witt asserted of Palin: "Lowered expectation because of some critical reviews of her network interviews. Do you think that lowered expectations will actually help her and might the campaign folks be micromanaging her now and not letting her personality come out?" Roll Call reporter Emily Heil replied: "[C]ertainly, those lowered expectations, if she does kind of well, I think most people will call it a success."
  • During the noon ET hour of the September 28 edition of MSNBC Live, Witt asked: "[W]hen you talk about the expectations being lowered for Sarah Palin, and that certainly seems to be the consensus that we've been hearing throughout this day here on MSNBC Sunday, does that mean that she just has to go out there and be herself, as many have suggested, showing her personality?"
  • During the 11 a.m. ET hour of the September 29 edition of MSNBC Live, after anchor Tamron Hall asked if "low expectations actually help" Palin and "on the flip side, is it fair that Joe Biden might be held to a higher standard," Newsweek correspondent Suzanne Smalley replied, "Well, I think that you're right to mention low expectations. That is something Sarah Palin has going for her."
  • During 3 p.m. ET hour of the September 30 edition of MSNBC Live, NBC News correspondent Savannah Guthrie said of the McCain campaign's expectations regarding Palin's performance, "If she just survives on Thursday, I think they'll be pleased." She also reported that the "party line I'm hearing today, which is to keep those expectations low, to say, 'Let Palin be Palin. She's not running to be head of the debate club, and that's not what Americans want.'"
  • As Media Matters for America documented, CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger asserted that "the bar is, first of all, on the floor for Sarah Palin" for the debate, to which senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin responded that "it's not our job" to "sort of create these expectations."

Notwithstanding claims by these media figures that expectations are "lower" for Palin, some in the media have praised Palin's debating abilities based on her performance in the 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debate. National Review White House correspondent Byron York wrote in a September 8 post to the National Review Online blog The Corner: "[A]ll I have to say is that Palin was good -- really good. It wasn't a debate in which the candidates were in each other's faces or throwing out zingers, but Palin clearly outshone her rivals -- especially [former Alaska Gov. Frank] Murkowski, the longtime senator who played the role of the experienced statesman." Similarly, in a post to the Time.com blog Swampland, national political correspondent Karen Tumulty described Palin's gubernatorial debate performance as "impressive," adding that Palin "is also very good on her feet." Tumulty went on to write: "That's why Joe Biden should be wary, especially since she will have expectations very much in her favor."

In addition, MSNBC Live's Hall asked Newsweek national correspondent Suzanne Smalley if the vice-presidential debate, which Hall said will have "more structure" than the campaign trail, will "help Governor Palin." Smalley replied, in part:

I think that the structure may be harder. It's easy when you're talking off the cuff to take a moment and think, but when you're under the glaring lights of a national TV audience and millions of people watching and having to speak for an hour and a half nonstop against somebody like Joe Biden, who's been doing this for so long, it's a really tough position for anybody who's fairly new on the national political scene. So it's gonna be a challenge for her.

In asserting the purported benefit to Biden of the "structure," Smalley did not note that the McCain campaign reportedly "fought for and won a much more structured approach for the questioning at the vice-presidential debate." According to a September 20 New York Times article:

At the insistence of the McCain campaign, the Oct. 2 debate between the Republican nominee for vice president, Gov. Sarah Palin, and her Democratic rival, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., will have shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the presidential nominees, the advisers said. There will also be much less opportunity for free-wheeling, direct exchanges between the running mates.

From the September 28 edition of Fox News Sunday:

JUAN WILLIAMS (Fox News political contributor and NPR news analyst): But with regard to Palin, let me just say, they wouldn't even put Palin in the spin room after the debates. Joe Biden was out there in the spin room.

BRIT HUME (Fox News Washington managing editor): Right.

WILLIAMS: And I think that, you know, when Bill [Kristol] says that they're mismanaging her -- the idea they put her out there with the world leaders of the U.N. -- she looked bumbly. She wouldn't even talk to reporters then. She goes on with [Fox News host] Sean Hannity, our friend. And what happens? She can't even talk about the bailout effectively. And with [CBS Evening News anchor] Katie Couric, it was an implosion.

LIASSON: But for this debate, no one is going to benefit more from low expectations than Sarah Palin. She has got about the lowest expectations. People think she's going to come on and babble incoherently, and I think she's going to do just fine.

CHRIS WALLACE (host): Brit, you get the final word about Sarah Palin.

HUME: My guess is she'll do fine, but I think Bill's right. They've got to let her be herself, and she'll do fine.

From the 8 a.m. ET hour of the September 28 edition of MSNBC Live:

WITT: How about real quickly, the VP debate is Thursday. Lots of talk in this media -- in the media, rather, this week -- about Sarah Palin following her latest major interview. How about this: Are expectations so low for Palin that she can't help but do better than what people expect?

DECKER: You know, I know, Alex -- I'm gonna miss it -- but I know you're going to play a lot of Saturday Night Live from last night. The clips from Saturday Night Live last night, this morning. And, you know, there's this image that's been presented of her, pretty much through SNL, but through other venues as well, as a person who is not up to it -- not up to being the person who's a heartbeat away from the presidency. And as a result, expectations are extremely low for her going into the Thursday night's debate. You like expectations low going into a debate, that's for sure. And if she can beat those expectations, it will be a good night for Sarah Palin.

WITT: OK. Always a good morning with you being here. Thank you so much, John Decker.

DECKER: Thank you, Alex.

From the 9 a.m. ET hour of the September 28 edition of MSNBC Live:

WITT: Emily, a lot of attention has been focused on Sarah Palin. Lowered expectation because of some critical reviews of her network interviews. Do you think that lowered expectations will actually help her and might the campaign folks be micromanaging her now and not letting her personality come out?

HEIL: Well, there is certainly a lot of pressure on Sarah Palin for this debate performance. You know, she's going up against Joe Biden, who's, you know, considered a very, you know, good speaker. He's gaffe-prone, for sure, but he's a old hand at this, and she's not. And I think that's causing a lot of concern for her handlers. And I think there was some thought that maybe it was over-handling that had caused this bad performance. We're going to have to see.

But you know what? The debate format is actually, I think, going to work in her favor to a certain extent. The questions are doing to be shorter, and also the topics are going to be very wide-ranging. She's much more well-versed on economic issues, on domestic issues, as opposed to foreign policy issues. So to the extent that it's wide-ranging and to the extent that she can focus in on what she knows, I think that's where she might do better. But certainly, those lowered expectations, if she does kind of well, I think most people will call it a success.

From the noon ET hour of the September 28 edition of MSNBC Live:

WITT: But Molly [Hooper, CQ political reporter], you know, when you talk about the expectations being lowered for Sarah Palin, and that certainly seems to be the consensus that we've been hearing throughout this day here on MSNBC Sunday, does that mean that she just has to go out there and be herself, as many have suggested, showing her personality? That is what a lot of the American public has, you know, clamored onto. Or the fact that she is debating Joe Biden, who's been in the Senate for so long, that he -- you know, there on Capitol Hill. He's going to have some nuts and bolts to offer.

HOOPER: We'll see. And that's the thing about Senator Biden: He does have the nuts and bolts, but he doesn't do the talking points. And he's so, like I said, intelligent and knows what he's talking about, that he'll start to get into these arguments that are very temporal and almost beyond people. I mean, I went to Berkeley, I was a history major, I love listening to Biden, but sometimes it goes over my head. And, you know, if Palin gets out there and she's herself -- when I say that, she just is plainspoken, keeps the answers short, sweet, and to the point, you know, a little, kind of Tina Fey. We laugh and everything, but, you know, people want to hear that.

WITT: Yeah.

HOOPER: They want to be reassured. They want those flat-out statements. They want that assurance. And Biden, like I said, he likes to talk.

WITT: Yeah, he does. And Molly, to what extent does he have to worry, though, about coming right up to what is probably a pretty fine line over being mean or condescending or anything, should Sarah Palin throw something that he vehemently disagrees with?

HOOPER: Well, here's the thing about Senator Biden, and this is one of the reasons I love watching him on the Senate floor -- this is why I love my job, because I can go out and see him speak, sitting on the Senate floor. And, you know, he has this way about him. He can sound sort of condescending, but it's not con-- he can be kind of condescending, but it's not condescending. And that -- it's almost sort of a Palin-esque kind of quality he has, but in a very 20 dollar kind of word way.

WITT: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know what? I'm going to say, from my experience with him, interviewing him, he's just a really nice guy.

HOOPER: I know.

WITT: I'm just going to say that. You know, he absolutely is.

From the 11 a.m. ET hour of the September 29 edition of MSNBC Live:

HALL: But could low expectations actually help Sarah Palin heading into this VP debate? And on the flip side, is it fair that Joe Biden might be held to a higher standard? Suzanne Smalley is a national correspondent for Newsweek. And so Suzanne, who has the edge going into the debate here?

SMALLEY: Well, I think that you're right to mention low expectations. That is something Sarah Palin has going for her. Nonetheless, Joe Biden has been in Congress for decades and is a very skilled debater, and no matter how low the expectations are, that matchup is gonna be tough for her. And it's going to be -- the stakes are very high for this campaign, especially after Saturday Night Live.

I think you can argue that the [ABC World News anchor] Charlie Gibson interview, the Katie Couric interview, all of that inside the Beltway has a big impact, but once it hits Saturday Night Live and you get a roasting like that from a show that many low-information voters are watching, that's a portrait that's gonna start to stick of Governor Palin, and she really needs to do well in this debate.

HALL: It's interesting. On ABC's This Week, John McCain was asked about Sarah Palin's answer to a question that the U.S. military should cross the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan. We know they've been talking about this, they talked about it in a debate. And that was essentially agreeing with Senator [Barack] Obama. So here's how Senator McCain responded to it.

McCAIN [video clip]: This business of, in all due respect, people going around and sticking a microphone while conversations are being held and then all of a sudden that's a person's position -- it's a free country, but I don't think most Americans think that that's a definitive policy statement made by Governor Palin.

HALL: So to backtrack a little bit so our audience knows what's happened, someone kind of approached her with a mic, and they ask her and that was her off-the-cuff, if you will, explanation. In the debate, more structure -- will that help Governor Palin in that -- it's a lot of information, but to whom much is given, much is expected.

SMALLEY: Right. And, you know, I think that, first of all, the "off the cuff" defense from Senator McCain is really -- I mean, they have to have some kind of defense, but his campaign's gone after Joe Biden for off-the-cuff remarks. I mean, it's the nature of the game, and it is striking that she did disagree with her running mate's position on this issue.

Beyond that, you know, I think that the structure may be harder. It's easy when you're talking off the cuff to take a moment --

HALL: Right.

SMALLEY: -- and think, but when you're under the glaring lights of a national TV audience and millions of people watching and having to speak for an hour and a half nonstop against somebody like Joe Biden, who's been doing this for so long, it's a really tough position for anybody who's fairly new on the national political scene. So it's gonna be a challenge for her.

From the 3 p.m. ET hour of the September 30 edition of MSNBC Live:

NORAH O'DONNELL (anchor): Savannah, John McCain just said they don't expect her -- they don' t -- "their appreciation for her is not because she's got a Ph.D. from Harvard. She doesn't." It sounded like a backhanded compliment, but nevertheless, are there Republicans that are concerned about her performance and what this means for John McCain's candidacy? And, I mean, doesn't it say something, the fact that all of his top advisers are with her there now? They've left John McCain by himself, and they're with Palin to get her ready.

GUTHRIE: Well, that's true. I mean, to that point, we just heard [NBC News correspondent] Ron [Allen] that David Axelrod [chief political strategist for Obama] and others are with Biden now. So these debates are important, and so you do put the full-court press.

There's no question that Republicans -- many of them will tell you privately they're very concerned about Sarah Palin. And now, some of them are peeling off and even saying so publicly. I mean, we've seen some prominent writers come out and say, "Palin isn't ready for prime time."

But what you heard John McCain tell Kelly O'Donnell this morning is very much the party line I'm hearing today, which is to keep those expectations low, to say, "Let Palin be Palin. She's not running to be head of the debate club, and that's not what Americans want." And also to point out, "Hey, Joe Biden's been doing this for 30 years. Of course Sarah Palin -- she's going to do the best she can, but let's not overstate the case." If she just survives on Thursday, I think they'll be pleased.

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