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:
Tags: debate, Election 2008, McCain, Obama
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.