Palin vs. Biden: How Sex May Change the Debate

Vice presidential candidates will face off in their first debate Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008. (Image credit: AP Photo)

If history repeats itself, the vice presidential candidates will pull no punches at Thursday night's debate.

But this time there's a woman in the mix, and that could really turn things upside-down. Sarah Palin might take on a more manly, aggressive style while Joe Biden steps into a less combative, more traditionally feminine role, according to a professor who has analyzed past mixed-gender debates.

"If we see the events on Thursday night that follow the debates that I've studied in the past that involve both male and female candidates, it very well may be the case that Sarah Palin will come out as the more aggressive debater in terms of her tendency to attack and to go on the offense in that debate," said Mitchell McKinney, associate professor of communication at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU).

McKinney's past research has shown that when a man and woman go head-to-head, they adopt each other's traditional communication styles. That study, co-authored with Mary Banwart, communication professor at the University of Kansas, was published in the December 2005 issue of the journal Communication Studies.

The lessons, McKinney said, could apply to this week's debate.

"With Joe Biden, he sometimes has a tendency to come across as somewhat bombastic or at least aggressive, somewhat attack prone," McKinney told LiveScience. "And I think that he may be prepped to try to keep that in check and to not go too far and to be careful with how he confronts and handles his opponent so there won't be perceptions that he's somehow being a bully or mistreating Palin."

And those who have experienced the mixed-gender debates get it. On the Today Show, Wednesday, George H.W. Bush, who debated Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, said: "You've got to be very careful, and you've got to be sure you don't seem overbearing and rude."

McKinney also found a difference in issues discussed in past man vs. woman debates, with male candidates focusing more on issues that are traditionally seen as women's issues, while the female candidate takes on masculine, power-type topics.

The gender component

Thursday night will be only the second time in U.S. executive branch-level debate history that a female nominee will take the stage. (The first to do so was Ferraro who was Walter Mondale's veep running-mate in 1984.)

But females have been on other major political tickets. So McKinney and Banwart examined communication tactics used by U.S. senatorial and gubernatorial candidates engaged in televised, mixed-gender campaign debates.

Females were also more likely than their male counterparts to launch personal attacks on their male opponents.

"In politics, the stereotypical 'masculine' traits of being tough and ambitious, as well as having strong leadership and administrative skills, are more highly valued over the so-called 'feminine' traits of being compassionate and family-oriented, and possessing strong people skills," McKinney said.

He added that Palin has shown her willingness to go on the attack mode. "I think she may continue that strategy Thursday night," McKinney said. "It will be somewhat interesting to see how Biden responds, but because of these stereotypes that are still prevalent he has to be very careful."

In the study, women were more likely than men to raise issues such as crime, defense, taxes and budgets.

"By being the more aggressive debater, shying away from the so-called 'feminine' issues and adopting strategies that focus on their experience, these women are trying to overcome traditional notions that question a female candidate's governing competence," McKinney said.

He added, "They also are challenging the stereotype that male candidates possess greater strength or political ability and have greater political experience."

Historical debates

In addition to analyzing the candidates on the basis of their sex chromosomes, past presidential and vice presidential debates can serve as a proxy for what to expect on Thursday in terms of aggression.

In 1960, and from 1976 through 2004, presidential debates were no cake-walk, said Bill Benoit, also a professor in MU's Department of Communication. While 57 percent of the statements across all the debates he studied were positive, 35 percent were attacks and 9 percent were defensive (refuting attacks). (For various reasons, presidential debates weren't held from 1964 through 1972, and so those years were excluded from Benoit's analysis.)

Similarly, in the most recent debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, Benoit found that while more than half of the candidates' statements were positive, attacks accounted for nearly 40 percent of the content of all statements. Defensive statements made up the rest.

Incumbents tend to be more positive during debates, Benoit also has found, and during the Sept. 26 presidential debate, McCain played his part as a representative of the incumbent party. He had more positive statements and fewer attacks than Obama.

For his part, Obama worked hard to link McCain with President Bush, mentioning the President's name 10 times while McCain remained quiet on that front.

"It appears that Obama wants to create the impression that McCain is the incumbent and associated with the policies of the president that didn't work so well," Benoit said.

Thursday's debate

Benoit said to expect basically more of the same aggression Thursday night.

VP debates didn't begin until 1976, but Benoit's analyses show the vice presidential debates, overall, feature more attacks than presidential debates and fewer defenses. The proportion of positive statements has been virtually the same.

"There's something in the situation of running for office that leads you to be more positive (than negative)," Benoit said during a telephone interview. "And we think it's because there really aren't any drawbacks when you say nice things about yourself. But when you attack your opponent, some people don't like that because they think it's mudslinging."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.