No sports broadcaster will ever tell viewers that what they're watching isn't crucial. No matter how meaningless the game, it's always terribly important for some reason or other.
Political pundits and talking heads evidently have no such qualms. Setting up Thursday night's vice-presidential debate and later responding to it, they dutifully reminded viewers that it really might not matter that much who "won" or "lost." To emphasize the point, some cited the most infamous moment in the history of these things – Lloyd Bentsen humiliating Dan Quayle by informing him that he was not, in fact, Jack Kennedy – and noted that it was Mr. Quayle who wound up vice-president.
But in a neck-and-neck race being fought heavily in the trenches, any event that addresses a relatively large number of voters at once has some consequence. Less than a month before the election, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan got to briefly drive a news cycle that the campaigns are obsessed with winning on a daily basis.
More importantly, they got to try to achieve a few specific goals for their running mates. And looking more closely at a few of those suggests that, with one notable exception, it was a slightly more productive night for Barack Obama's campaign than for Mitt Romney's.
ACT AS SURROGATES
Modern campaigns involve an endless parade of supporters turning up on cable networks, Sunday-morning talk shows, and assorted social media to debate their respective candidates' merits. Known as "surrogates," they can say things in more shameless, nastier, less presidential fashion than the people seeking their nation's highest office.
The vice-presidential debate is in a sense the mother of all surrogates' panels, particularly in the interview-style format used on Thursday. Appearing on all major TV networks at once, the candidates have a 90-minute window to bluntly argue why their guy is better than the other guy, in ways that would be incredibly off-putting if the presidential contenders did it.
Mr. Ryan did his bit to humanize Mr. Romney, in one sequence somewhat awkwardly describing his charity toward a family whose children had been paralyzed in a car accident. But Mr. Biden consistently, enthusiastically hit at the Republicans – for Mr. Romney's "47 per cent" comments, for allegedly being war-mongers, for supposedly betting against their country – as Mr. Obama couldn't without being unseemly.
The attacks on Romney-Ryan were more frequent and more memorable than the ones against Obama-Biden; to the extent that anyone will remember any of this in a few days, that has to make the Democrats feel good.
RALLY THE BASE
With a polarized electorate, this campaign is as much about getting would-be supporters to cast ballots as about changing minds. Both campaigns have their challenges: Mr. Obama is suffering from having failed to live up to wild expectations, and Mr. Romney is a compromise candidate not entirely trusted by dyed-in-the wool conservatives.
Coming out of the parties' conventions around Labour Day, Mr. Obama seemed to have more love from the faithful; after the President's weirdly indifferent debate performance last week, it's been Advantage Romney.
Mr. Ryan, despite being on the ticket largely to shore up Mr. Romney's conservative credentials, did little to press this. With Mr. Romney having recently shifted back toward the centre, his running mate made a visible effort not to be too provocative.
Mr. Biden was tasked with reinvigorating disillusioned Democrats, and approached it with gusto. What might have seemed grating – over-animated reactions to Mr. Ryan, constant interruptions, excessive and occasionally schmaltzy references to the "middle class" – was meant to reignite a fire under Democratic activists and hard-core supporters, particularly in the hotly-contested rust-belt states where Mr. Biden's emotive brand of politics plays better than Mr. Obama's cool.
Even just coming off hungry, rather than complacent, was a help to the Democrats after the first presidential debate. And Mr. Biden seemed like a guy who really, really wants to keep his job.
TARGET KEY VOTING BLOCS
Because they can be blunt, and don't have to be all things to all people, vice-presidential candidates can speak directly to demographics they need to put them over the top in key battlegrounds. Enter seniors, who are particularly coveted in the battleground state of Florida. The push for their support was the subtext of one of the debate's more heated exchanges, on medicare, which culminated in an amusing attempt by both candidates to get the last word in, and to make it as broad an attack on their opponent's plans as possible.
On paper, the transcript of this section looks like a draw. But here, again, Mr. Biden's more impassioned tone may have given him an edge.
More broadly, his old-school manner – including his condescending demeanour toward his opponent, and the fine line that he walks between folksiness and schmaltz – helped Mr. Biden strike a potentially useful contrast to the boyish Mr. Ryan.
MAKE YOUR RUNNING MATE LOOK GOOD BY ASSOCIATION
Here is one area, and it's a significant one, in which Mr. Ryan did his campaign more favours than Mr. Biden.
Particularly for a challenger for the White House, one of the big judgment tests is who he or she chooses as a running mate – someone who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency. While this has never been known to make a presidential campaign, it can help break one, as John McCain discovered with Sarah Palin four years ago.
When he was named to the Republican ticket in August, there were concerns Mr. Ryan's relative inexperience and strident conservatism would make Mr. Romney look unserious, even desperate.
On Thursday, Mr. Ryan looked like an entirely respectable choice to be part of an administration – arguably more so than his hyperactive debating partner. No longer does he pose a risk of being a major liability among swing voters. If anything he mildly eased fears of a Republican administration heading into next Tuesday's second presidential debate, when the campaigns will go back to playing for keeps.