Winning a Debate

In the cold open of Howie Kurtz’s column today in which he claims that the media was “taken for a spin,” it would seem as though Kurtz himself was spun around a bit as well.  Between David Axelrod and Steve Schmidt, he claims, it was McCain’s man with the solidified message that Barack said McCain was right 11 times that won the day in the infamous spin alley just moments following the debate.

But, as has been made plainly obvious over the course of the days following the debate, this isn’t exactly true.

Normally, I provide post debate analysis within the twelve hours after the event ends.  This time, though, I deliberately delayed any analysis for a very specific reason; debates in modern politics are not necessarily won at the podium on national television, but all too often are decided in the subsequent hours and days by aggressive spin operations, journalists, and even word of mouth.  Indeed, what occurs before a debate can be just as important, if not more, than the debate itself.

Recall the 2004 election wherein the Bush campaign likened John Kerry to Cicero–a deft move that not only lowered expectations for the incumbent president, but also perhaps provided a little bit of cultural polarization as well.

There are any number of ways in which a debate can be graded.  The debate itself is generally broken down by style and substance, with substance further being broken down into accuracy, breadth of knowledge, etc.  Beyond this, one must also take into account pre-debate spin in which the goal is not to boost the favored candidate, but instead the opponent.  Then you have immediate audience reaction, the spin wars, and ultimately how the debate is reported by the general press.

And, three days out from the actual debate, it is clear by any standard that Obam won the first debate hands down.

Rating the debate itself, in terms of substance, we must take into account the fact that the debate was broken up generally into two parts; an emergent discussion of the economy, and the scheduled discussion of foreign policy.  Substantively, there can be no question that Obama won for the simple fact that McCain’s one leading point was pork barrel spending–a problem that many would agree is of relatively low priority, and actually has little bearing on the economic problems that we face today.

By contrast, Obama made a major point of addressing the economic crisis directly, while at the same time hammering home his economic policy that would deliver tax cuts to 95% of Americans and be focused on strengthening the middle class.  He even managed to tie the latter to the former.  On the sheer strength of a broader level of knowledge, Obama substantively won that portion of the debate.

In regard to foreign policy, that question is a little more difficult to answer from a purely objective point of view.  For long time followers of the campaign, if you’re more in line with Obama’s vision of foreign policy, you’re likely to think that Obama won.  If you’re more in line with McCain’s vision of foreign policy, you’re likely to think that McCain won.  What makes the difference here is that foreign policy was supposed to be McCain’s strong point.  In other words, that McCain couldn’t clearly and decisively own the topic brings into question the perceived strength while the fact that Obama held his own increases confidence that he can serve as commander in chief.

In other words, Obama is ceded something of a handicap given that McCain is perceived to be stronger in that particular arena meaning that a virtual tie goes to Obama.  How did he manage this?  By accomplishing several basic things; first he was aggressive in defending his own policy proposals when they came under attack, and equally aggressive in refuting McCain’s assertions.  These two points alone led to some of the more potent moments of the debate; the “You were wrong” litany, and the heated discussion of Kissinger.  Also, Obama worked hard not to let McCain run out in front of him; admittedly a tricky dynamic to describe, but the two moments that seem to best illustrate this were Obama’s ability to come back and speak knowledgeably after McCain ran off about the dynamics of Eastern Europe and Russia, and the much talked about bracelet portion of the debate.

In both instances, the subtext was simply this; Obama was not going to let John McCain own anything.

But I’m a partisan, and this is intended to be objective analysis.  I recognize that, and the fact that I am partisan underscorse the validity of objective analysis which means we have to take a tougher look at everything else.

Weeks before the debate began, the McCain camp was already screwing up, chiding Senator Obama for being “lost without a teleprompter.”  This was a point they hit over and over again, and fed into a long line of criticism that has followed Obama for much of the presidential election.  He was a great orator, but without a prepared speech what good was he?

The problem with this tactic is that anyone who listened and believed the “lost without a teleprompter” meme must have been thinking that Obama would be a puddle of goo once he actually got behind the podium.  That that didn’t actually happen may have come as a shock, and a potentially mind changing shock at that.

The Obama campaign didn’t do much better either; their lifting up of McCain was half hearted at best, but they did make a concerted effort to point out that the primary focus of the debate was supposed to be right in McCain’s wheelhouse.

In the end, when the McCain camp did finally switch from saying Obama would be lost without a teleprompter to trying to claim that Obama was a pretty good debater, they were undermined by their own previous messaging.

As a point of interest, I wondered if the campaign “suspension” which was not being very well received, might have had the inadvertant effect of lowering expectations for McCain as well.  It’s unsure how much of an effect it had.  But in the game of lowering expectations, Obama marginally lost, as many focus groups and snapshot polls prior to the debate had more voters believing Obama would win than McCain.  In retrospect, one could make a case that Obama actually won the expectations game because fewer people prior to the debate believed he would win compared to those after the debate that gave him the win.

One of the interesting things watching the debate online is that you are given the opportunity to watch the debate while seeing a real time meter guage the approval or disapproval from a focus group of viewers divided among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.  Which makes this an excellent time to discuss not only the viewer’s reaction, but also style.

One thing that remained true throughout the debate is that while John McCain didn’t outright lose his temper, one could easily characterize him as grumpy, angry, standoffish, beligerent, and condescending.  By contrast, Senator Obama was cool, level headed, and engaging.  Both candidates were aggressive at times, but it was plainly clear that when Obama was aggressive, he rarely dipped into the arena of being disrespectful, unlike John McCain.

And the focus grouping at the time reflected this distinct difference between the two candidates.  When McCain was talking generally about policy, without directing any kinds of attacks at his opponents, only the Democrats dipped in their real time opinion.  When McCain did go on the attack, or when he got flustered, or spoke with perceivable animosity, both the Democrats and Independents dipped in their opinion.

By contrast, during the few times when Obama went on direct attack, likely because it was more acceptable for him to do so given his generally more respectful tone, both Democrats and Independent opinion rose.  Further, as the debate wore on, Obama was capable of garnering higher levels of support from both Independents and Democrats than McCain was able to generate from either Republicans or Independents.

And, of course, there’s the fact that McCain couldn’t look Obama in the eye throughout the entire debate.  This has been something that has been talked about frequently since then, and I feel had a lasting effect on the electorate.  Many take it as a blatant sign of disrespect and contempt, while some out there have theorized that this is behavior one might seen when a beta male is confronted with an Alpha male.

In any case, Obama clearly won both in the area of style and in among focus groups indicating that he won the direct viewers.  But what about the post debate coverage, and the spin wars?

Not having access to spin alley, I can’t speak on the technical regards of the immediate spin wars.  Kurtz may be correct in pointing out that the McCain campaign had an advantage at least in its confidence of its post debate messaging, but then again, it would seem that after that debate, the “he was right” meme may have been the only thing that the McCain campaign had to run with, so they ran all out.

But I do think it is more than significant that in the interviews directly following the debate, Biden was available for interviews and was effective at tearing McCain apart.  Sarah Palin, by contrast, was not addressing the media, but instead was drinking in a bar at a debate watching party.  I think this alone is of significance in that it says an awful lot about the preparedness of both campaigns.

In the media, you would find few that would give McCain a decisive victory, which would ultimately play out as a loss for the McCain.  Again, the dynamic at work here is simple; McCain was supposed to be the foreign policy expert, the fact that Obama was able to keep up, or debate McCain to a draw, or whatever other vernacular you want to employ all indicates that McCain didn’t do what he needed to do.  Further, debates are potential game changers; they provide opportunities for a candidate who is lagging behind to do something spectacular and change the course of the campaign.

Thus, if there is a candidate who is clearly in the lead, as Obama managed to do in the days before the debate, a tie by default gets awarded to the frontrunner by simple virtue that the trailing candidate must now soldier on with an opportunity lost.

So what is the final verdict?  As reported in the Politico, polls continue to pour in indicating that while the media may have been declaring this debate a tie and thus a technical nod to Obama, viewers of the actual debate are giving him the win by clear margins.  Further, Gallup today shows that Obama is enjoying his second straight day with an eight point lead, keeping in line with a bevy of other recent polls all showing that Obama is continuing to open this race up.

Ultimately, who wins or loses a debate can be a tricky thing to measure.  We don’t have a structured grading system–there is no point system like in sports where you can just look at the scoreboard when the debate is over.  Even if we did, I don’t think it would matter–winning the debate is itself not the goal, winning the election is.  A candidate can come away with a major point lead in a debate as scored by independent judges, but if what sticks in the mind of the electorate isn’t reflected by the score, it will be in the voting booth.

No, what matters is if and how a debate changes the race and the perceptions of those who watched the debate, and even the perceptions of those who didn’t watch the debate, but heard about it on TV or the watercooler.  Winning a debate is about increasing your chances of winning the election, and on that ground, Obama has clearly and decisively won the first debate.

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