Barack Obama: A mosaic of peopleSo, tonight, an estimated sixty million people watched John McCain turn in a debate performance that probably left his campaign wishing he’s stuck to his promise to stay away, and that will surely cost him a few more points in the polls.

I write this before having exposed myself to any mass-media spin or blogosphere analysis:  this is straight unadulaterated personal reaction. I went to a public screening of tonight’s presidential debate at the Chicago History Museum, in an auditorium that was packed to capacity. It was, no question, a room chock-full of Obama supporters… but we didn’t have to grant the hometown guy a handicap to see him come out ahead.

Before the debate began, there was an hour-long panel discussion with a group of journalists and political scientists. It was interesting: not only the panelists but, I’d wager, most of the audience were dedicated political junkies. We’d been following the details of the campaign for months. We could, as the discussion made clear, anticipate what both candidates were likely to say, how they were likely to say it, and how they meant to position themselves by saying it that way. It was also clear that what we wanted to hear was not necessarily the same as what we expected to hear or what the candidates “needed” to say. It left me wondering… who exactly was the real target audience for this debate? Who constitutes the population that approaches such a thing in genuine suspense, not as political theater but as a source of information that could actually influence their votes? Certainly, the media covering it was and is even more jaded than those of us in the auditorium. Are there really that many genuinely undecided, “low-information” voters out there?

Then we settled in for the actual debate…

…and the best I can say for McCain is that, well, he had definite moments of lucidity.

In between them, though, were broad stretches where he was barely coherent—stringing non sequiturs together, interrupting himself with odd anecdotes, randomly repeating lines, and dropping (what were no doubt scripted to be memorable) sound bites with dull thuds at inapropos moments.

There were points where I found myself wincing in embarrassment for him. (The effort to pronounce Ahmadinejad?) McCain was clearly trying to paint his opponent as naive and unprepared, but he was the one who came across as unready and unsure of himself. He was the addled grandpa you humor and listen to because he has some interesting life stories, but whom you wouldn’t  trust to make any important decisions.

Obama, by contrast, was smart, sharp, and on point. He answered Lehrer’s questions clearly and directly. He understood all the issues. He responded to McCain’s attempted attacks in a matter-of-fact way, not returning cheap shot for cheap shot but instead keeping things serious:  e.g., the way he pointed out McCain’s absurd caricature of what it means to negotiate with adversarial heads of state. And he made some painfully accurate points about the way McCain’s current rhetoric doesn’t match his record, and about the urgent need to take a big-picture approach to setting national priorities and restoring America’s reputation in the world.

Of course, despite all this, 30% of the population out there will still be die-hards who insist that McCain was distinguished and dignified and the clear winner. We can safely ignore them. To the extent that the hypothetical audience I was wondering about really exists, though? To the extent that anyone was still undecided?… Well, I certainly can’t imagine that McCain won any of them over tonight.

Updated to add:

And the instant poll results seem to agree with me:

CBS News and Knowledge Networks conducted a nationally representative poll of approximately 500 uncommitted voters reacting to the debate in the minutes after it happened.

Thirty-nine percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate tonight thought Barack Obama was the winner. Twenty-four percent thought John McCain won. Thirty-seven percent saw it as a draw.

Forty-six percent of uncommitted voters said their opinion of Obama got better tonight. Thirty-two percent said their opinion of McCain got better.

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6 Responses to “A very lopsided debate”
  1. How many of those workers are going to lose everything if this plan – or something better – is tossed into the legislative shredder again?

  2. michael says:

    I remain skeptical, not least because needing to show that one is in the mainstream is already a losing proposition, insofar as “independents” respond to pseudo-rebellious populist appeals. The swing voter is presumptively McCain’s to lose, and I saw nothing in the debate indicating Obama is making any progress there. The national polls all have him in the lead—except the ones covering battleground states, where the election will be decided. I wouldn’t count on Florida seniors, who, in addition to being fuzzy on how to vote correctly, overwhelmingly think Obama is Osama (no kidding!).

    Obama’s unconscionable support for the bailout definitively deprives him of all credibility as being “on the side of the worker,” which has been his main selling point. However one reads the bracelet, McCain owns that issue, at least among swing voters. Obama’s last hope may be that Palin does not pull out and looks like the idiot she is in her debate with Biden. But he has to take care not to insult her, and that’s a tall order for him.

  3. Pay attention: I watched the debate at a museum, not a bar. And Luntz’s group was explicitly made up of previously undecided voters, split evenly between those who voted for Bush and for Kerry four years ago. And it’s true that Obama’s numbers have surged among women recently—but hey, wasn’t that a demographic he was supposed to have “trouble” with just a few weeks ago? If he’s now coming across as attractive and comforting (vs. elitist and alienating), then good for him. (BTW, he’s gained ground among men, too. And senior citizens.)

    At any rate, the “many eyes” I referred to were scattered among god-knows-how-many comments I read yesterday morning on scads of discussion sites of every political stripe. The conventional wisdom pre-debate was that Obama tends to come across as “professorial” and needed to try harder to show passion and empathy, while McCain comes across as touchy and impulsive (at least lately) and needed to demonstrate that he was grounded. Obama needed to show that he was within the political “mainstream,” not too risky or scary (esp. to older, white voters), while McCain needed to show that he wasn’t entirely conventional, to avoid being just a creature of the Bush administration. By and large, Obama hit these marks… and McCain didn’t.

    As for reactions to specific sound bites… well, I guess that’s subjective; I’m sure your reaction was genuine. But I can assure you I’m not the only one who thought Obama owned the bracelet exchange. IMHO it was a sharp and effective retort that undermined McCain’s implicit message that military families side with him, and made the important point that not all of them want us to stay in Iraq. Obama also made his point quickly and clearly, whereas McCain’s anecdote had rambled painfully.

    McCain’s in a box now. He no doubt has scads of advisers telling him that in debate #2, he’ll have to take pains to look directly at Obama and be nice to him—IOW, exactly the opposite of what comes naturally to him. And that’s what people will be watching for. Remember how well it worked for Gore in 2000 to try to change his demeanor from one debate to the next?…

  4. michael says:

    Yeah, I’ve seen most of this, especially the Luntz bit (on Huffington Post). Note that the guy who thought McCain is “a strong leader” is the prototypical swing voter; the ones who liked Obama were women who probably leaned in his direction already, or found him attractive and comforting. But again, the election is now about a very thin but decisive slice of the demographic pie, and if they vote, and vote McCain, Obama loses, period. And that slice is pretty “20th century,” too. (Whose “many eyes” are you invoking? The group at the bar again? I’m already for Obama, and it looked to me like he just couldn’t match the experience argument, whatever the century.)

    FWIW, I cringed when Obama said “I have a bracelet, too, John.” He came off glib about soldiers dying and mothers suffering, and looked as if he thought collecting symbols is equivalent to commanding the respect of those handing them out. That was nearly a disastrous moment; he just barely salvaged it with the explanation of what the bracelet meant.

  5. I think you give McCain way too much credit. I’ve now looked at quite a bit of the media coverage (samples here and here), and the *best* anyone is saying for McCain is that it was a draw — and that’s a minority view and, as you note, less than he needed.

    McCain’s references to all his travels didn’t “kill”; in many eyes they just reminded people how “20th century” and “cold war” he was. (As did references to Brezhnev, SDI, etc.) If you’re looking for attacks that scored points, look to Obama’s reminder of McCain’s perplexing remark about the president of *Spain*, or his cutting “I have a bracelet too, John.”

    At any rate, the CNN poll gives the same result as the CBS one. So does Frank Luntz’s focus group (on Fox, yet!) of undecided voters.

    And remember, to the “undecided” voter, it’s about character and disposition more than issues. The dominant point I’ve seen everywhere this morning is that McCain refused to look at Obama, for whatever reason — condescending? contemptuous? afraid? — and generally came across as ill-at-ease. Cranky vs. cool, grumpy vs. gracious — that’s the emerging narrative.

  6. michael says:

    Okay, now I *know* you’ve lost your capacity to judge these things impartially. I watched the debate at home, by myself, on public TV (so without any extraneous graphics or data). It was, at best, a draw. Now, a draw for Obama on foreign policy is a win, so this is nothing to sneeze at. But McCain was much more coherent than you seem to think, and his attacks on Obama were pointed and effective; Obama seldom had an appropriate response. He continued to permit McCain to determine the terrain on which the Iraq argument would be waged, rather than changing the terms from when and how to leave the war—a losing framework for anyone who isn’t a vet—to casting the situation as a wasteful and interminable nation-building exercise (which would require McCain himself to set conditions for success and a timetable for leaving). McCain killed with his endless reminders that Obama had not gone to the strategically relevant places or met with the relevant leaders. All Obama could do was appear on the ball, which he did nicely and which probably accounts for the positive impression he left. But the debate was aimed squarely at the middle-aged, middl-class white men who, it has now become clear, see McCain as “a strong leader” and don’t get Obama. These are the people in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania Obama needs to win over or persuade to stay home. I doubt he made any progress on that count last night.

    As for the instant polls, the numbers can be interpreted in several ways that do not favor Obama. For example, given his unpopularity with “uncommitted” voters (no one is uncommitted who expects to vote), having just 39% on his side likely reflects pre-existing leanings. More importantly, if he continues to argue both sides of every question when they debate the economy, he’ll lose whatever presumption in his favor he currently enjoys. I wish he’d been a litigator rather than a professor.

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