Last night Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama shared a stage for what is most likely the last time during this presidential election season. It was the last best chance for McCain to force a game changer to save his flagging campaign, while for Senator Obama, he had the monumental task of protecting his frontrunner status against an opponent who has nothing to lose.
Before we get into it, I want to first give a big thanks to everyone who joined me during our liveblogging last night. It was in my humble opinion the best liveblogging we’ve had here at CFLF to date, it was great fun, and still I think we managed to get the play by play analysis pretty solid too. So thanks to Kathy, Terry, Teacher, Jazz, Dynamic (who just got a new blog so you’ll need to check that out), DrGail, Tas, and it feels like I’m forgetting someone but I hope I’m not. It was really a great time and if you missed out you can go back and read about the teabags and urinal cakes here.
And now for the post game analysis.
I want to open up by making mention of the snap polls. I’ll discuss the hard numbers later on, but one thing that I think is relevant, and has really been a deciding factor this election year is the prominence that the flash polls are playing in post game coverage. I’ll admit to not being quite sure about this, but I don’t remember in 2004 there being any snap polls, or if there were there just wasn’t that much focus on them.
What these things are doing is they are really revolutionizing the way we look at post debate coverage. In the past, who won a debate was largely decided by who won the post debate spin wars. It didn’t matter what the people actually saw the debate thought so much as which side could comandeer the news cycle with their spin and their chosen clips from the debate. My favorite example of this during 2004 was, I believe, the second debate. Bush claimed he had never said that he didn’t really care that much about Osama bin Laden. This was a matter of record, though, and I figured that this would be the game changer moment of the debate as the news cycle would be dominated by back to back footage of Bush making the claim at the debate, and the older footage proving that he was in fact lying.
Instead, what ended up dominating post debate discussion was Kerry’s supposed “outing” of Mary Cheney as a lesbian.
The thing about these flash polls is that it’s very difficult to make a case that your candidate won the debate if the flash polls unambiguously prove otherwise. Further, it changes the nature of the post debate coverage from who won, to why did one candidate win over another. In this regard, I really think the post debate flash polls actually have the happy benefit of keeping post debate coverage a little more honest than it had been in the past.
Now, my personal take on the debate didn’t start off so well. I will remark that Obama has clearly improved a great deal since he first launched his presidential campaign in the art of nationally televised debates. I say this because for perhaps the first third of the debate Obama seemed like he was off his game, and yet I couldn’t help but think to myself that at this point in the campaign, when he seems off his game he still is much more comfortable and polished than he was during the high points of the early debates in the Democratic primaries.
Still, not everyone watching last night had watched every single debate from the beginning like me, and therefore didn’t have that comparison to make. As I said, I think Obama started off on shaky ground, and one almost gets the impression that that is about as flapped as the unflappable Senator gets.
It was also during this first thirty minutes or so when John McCain was at his strongest. He was a little incoherent in his answers, but he was aggressive, confident, and doing better than he had done in the first two debates.
Then Bob Schieffer went for the kill question, essentially daring the two candidates to say to each other’s faces what they had been saying in TV ads and on the stump. This sparked a heated discussion in the debate during which it looked almost like McCain was going to dodge mentioning Bill Ayers as he had promised he would.
Eventually it did come out. For McCain’s part, I felt he came across as suffering from severe cognitive dissonance; he said he didn’t care about Ayers, but then insisted on bringing him up. He then spouts off about Ayers and ACORN, makes a big deal about them, then says his campaign is about the economy.
Now, when it comes to Obama’s response, one thing I had mentioned leading up to the debate is that bringing up Ayers and ACORN gave Obama the go ahead to it McCain on Keating Five and even possibly bring up Sarah Palin’s ethics violation. But he did neither. In fact, Obama’s response hardly touched McCain, but in retrospect I think Obama’s answer to the character attacks were far more effective than had he launched into a tit-for-tat attack.
First Obama corrected the record on both Ayers and ACORN. That was good, and that McCain continued the attacks after this I think may have pushed the line too far. Second, Obama made a profound statement about those with whom he did actually associate. This was an incredibly powerful moment as he gave people a glimpse of the kinds of people whose knowledge would be tapped in an Obama administration–substantive and at the same time presidential. Finally, Obama did throw an elbow when he said that to McCain that the attacks he had been launching “say more about your campaign than they do about me.”
From that moment forward the debate belonged to Obama. He was smooth, he was crisp, and he was detailed. The focus group dials really started to move in his direction after that and it wasn’t hard to see why. For lack of a better term, Obama just seemed more presidential; he was informative without preachy, and he put on display that first class temperament that has helped get him where he is today.
McCain, after that moment, just seemed to go downhill. Time and time again he kept falling back to his pork barrel crusade, and as the debate wore on, McCain just got more and more petulant and standoffish, his tone having an almost whiny, complaining quality to it as he answered.
Which brings us to the first clip I want to include here:
This clip, believe it or not, does not even begin to show just how irritable McCain came across as. He huffed, he puffed, and often times he looked like he wanted to blow the whole auditorium down. DrGail last night after the debate said, and this is coming from two psychologists, that McCain looked like a study in anger management, and I have to agree. He looked like he was struggling to hold in his ire for the man sitting across from him, and losing.
DrGail further went on to say that this gives a message to the viewer, a subliminal one, that he’s just this creepy guy, and you don’t know what he’s going to do next.
I also want to make another observation. Yet again Obama kept focusing his discussion on the middle class, McCain didn’t even mention the term once. In the first debate, I can imagine this being excused as being simply a minor oversight in framing the arguments. But after we’ve had two more debates, and we’ve looked at all the data and all the focus grouping, you would have thought that by now McCain would have realized that he needs to make his appeal to the middle class. Instead, McCain actually employed the term “Class Warfare,” which in my mind is as big of a mistake as Sarah Palin using “Joe Sixpack,” though for slightly different reasons.
Joe Sixpack, as I’ve explained before, is not a common house hold term, and is instead a kind of inside baseball term, and not a very kind one, to low information voters, particularly of the lower middle class and below. Palin’s use struck me as kind of accidentally calling someone to their face the name that you use for them when you’re making fun of them behind their backs.
Class Warfare, by contrast, is a conservative ideology term with heavy propaganda implications. Every time I’ve seen it used, it’s been used by upper crust right wing idealogues who are trying to argue against what they call “wealth distribution,” yet another conservative insider term. The problem with this, and for McCain using this, is that while this may really excite the base, it either goes over the head, or actually turns off the undecideds, the very same people who probably don’t agree with the conservative base on either concept.
So perhaps Obama’s greatest success, and McCain’s greatest failure, was connecting to the middle class. After three debates, McCain simply failed to make the case that he will fight for the middle class, or even that he acknowledges them. Obama makes that case, and makes it well.
Thus, with the exception of the first third of the debate which I tentatively awarded to McCain, I give this debate to Obama. But this is just me, and I’m voting for Obama, so what does my opinion matter? Let’s find out what the undecideds thought.
According to CNN’s flash poll, a full 58% of the viewers believed Barack Obama won the debate while only 31% thought McCain won. If you’re John McCain or one of his supporters, the numbers get even worse when you look at the CBS poll which shows that 53% thought Obama won, but only 22% felt McCain did a better job.
Nor did he do well among most focus groups, and in the case of at least one focus group, the audience actually started laughing at McCain, not with him.
One more thing. There was one portion of the debate last night where John McCain I think really hurt himself among women. This was when the discussion turned to abortion, which first provided McCain yet another opportunity to display his astounding level of cognitive dissonance. He had said that he would not impose a litmus test on judges he would appoint to the bench, using qualifications of the judge instead. But then he turned around and almost in the same breath he said that he felt any judge that believed in a woman’s right to choose was not qualified. Sounds like a litmus test to me.
But that wasn’t the moment I’m speaking of. In the clip below, you will see about halfway in McCain actually mock the “health of the mother.”
That’s not going to play well with women, or anyone who has any inkling towards women’s rights at all.
So, in summation, the Obama Biden team get to ring up a clean sweep of the debates in this election. While I thought this might have been Obama’s worst performance and McCain’s best, the flash polls show the widest margins in favor of Obama thus far. That says to me that people are really seeing Obama as our next President of the United States, and they are really getting comfortable.
The major thing to take away from this, though, is that this is a disastrous development for John McCain. McCain needed a game changer, he needed something, anything that could at the very least stop the bleeding. To this end, he would have had to have at least had a close debate with Obama. More preferably, McCain needed something that might get the polls moving in the opposite direction. Instead, though, he comes out of this debate with yet another loss on his hands, another missed opportunity, and I actually think the polls are going to continue to move in Obama’s favor as a result of this debate.
The funny thing is that McCain has been getting pressured from his core base to get meaner, to get nastier, to bring up ACORN and AYERS, while everyone else in politics has been telling him he needs to let that stuff go and come up with something that can level the playing field on the economy. McCain ceded to the base, and I personally think that that move slit his throat in this debate and in this campaign. For all the wingnuts out there, McCain did what you told him, and this debate is being considered his biggest loss thus far; how’s that working out for you?