Looking Forward To Tonight’s Debate: Nothing To Lose, Everything To Lose

Undoubtedly you know that tonight is the final presidential debate, the last time that the two candidates for President of the United States will share a stage this election season.  We’ll be liveblogging it, as always, and, as always, I’ll have the liveblog post published sometime between eight and eight-thirty in anticipation.

So let’s take a quick peek into what’s riding on tonight and how this may just go down.

I’m going to go out on a limb and disagree with the bulk analysis out there.  It seems the consensus right now is that all of the pressure is on McCain who needs a major gamechanger tonight to get his campaign back on track.  I actually happen to think that that way of thinking is somewhat flawed.

When we look at polling, but even more importantly, when we look at the chances that John McCain has to win, I think that shades the stakes tonight a little differently.  Currently, according to FiveThirtyEight, John McCain has less than a five percent chance to win the electionIntrade is a little more kind, pricing McCain “stock” at 18.9 points.  Shorter, John McCain could walk on stage tonight and start sacrificing babies to the dark goddess a-Thull whilst wearing nothing but a lot of Vaseline and the cleanly shorn pelt of an albino hare and it would not decrease his chances at winning the presidency much worse then where they stand now.

By contrast, Obama has a very strong lead, and three weeks in which to lose it.  That may not seem like an awful lot of time, but one should keep in mind that Obama gained that lead in a time period that was itself roughly three weeks in length.

Thus, Obama has to be cautious in protecting his lead tonight, while at the same time projecting the same presidential persona, and the same grace under fire that allowed him to be seen widely as the winner of the first two presidential debates.  As for McCain, he enjoys tonight the freedom that only one who has hit rock bottom can possibly enjoy.  He has no need to fear negative repurcussions for whatever he does tonight because as the race stands, he’s not very likely to win anyway.

This creates a situation where McCain needs to go for the knock out punch, and there is no real incentive not to (there’s honor and dignity, some would argue, but if you’ve been paying attention since the conventions, you know that that’s not really the case).  What will that knock out punch be?

Ayers.  This is what everyone is expecting tonight.  McCain’s waffled back and forth on whether he’ll bring up Ayers tonight, but last I checked he was telegraphing that he would indeed employ the former Weather Underground member in his attacks.  Will it work, or will it end up being yet another in a long string of Epic Fails produced by the McCain campaign?

That depends on a number of factors.  The first is the context in which McCain brings it up.  Now I talked a lot about McCain playing the Ayers card yesterday, and one of the things that I mentioned is that tonight’s debate is based on the economy.  After twenty-four hours, I’m still having a hard time coming up with a natural way for McCain to introduce Ayers into the debate.  Regardless, if McCain doesn’t want this ploy to fail, he’s going to have to bring Ayers up in such a way in which he doesn’t appear to be diverting attention away from issues that voters care more about.

Second, the success of an Ayers attack will have to depend on just how ready Obama is for it.  Given that Obama and Biden have been daring McCain to bring it up to Obama during the last debate for a week now, it’s difficult to imagine Obama not having a killer come back.  It’s possible that Obama is bluffing, but if he is it would be completely and totally out of character for the man who has become rather well known for his ability to counter punch.  Thus, if McCain puts Ayers out there, he’s going to need to be ready to get hit back and hit back hard.

Finally, if he wants an Ayers hit to be successful, undecided voters, swing voters, etc. have to care.  Which brings me to a very interesting focus group study I read earlier today.  A Republican consultant cuts an unreleased ad that hits Obama hard, the way the wingnuts want McCain to hit Obama.  He finds that the focus group buys it, they believe the charges, and they declare that they intend to vote for Obama anyway.  Read the whole thing as it is just astounding.

But it’s also very telling about the Republican brand, and John McCain’s specific brand.  These people were watching an attack ad, and they wouldn’t switch from Obama to McCain.  I think the probability goes down an awful lot if the same attack is made face to face in a setting where Obama can defend himself.

So that’s the big attack that should come tonight, but might not.  McCain is really in a Catch-22 here; if he uses the attack, he opens himself up to getting hit pretty hard, as well as continuing to drive up his negatives as polls have conclusively shown that the attacks aren’t working.  If he doesn’t use the attack, that opens him up to being called a coward for the final three weeks of the campaign.  This in and of itself can be deadly, but I’ll talk about that in a different post.

A couple of other things.  I’ve been reading in a lot of places that people think that tonight may be the night when McCain loses his temper and has a meltdown.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I hope he does, and if he does I will laugh hard enough that I’m sure a little bit of pee will leak out.  But I don’t think it’s going to happen.  Simply put, while McCain lacks discipline, I just can’t imagine him lacking that much discipline that he would lose all control over himself during possibly the most important ninety minutes of his political life.

The other thing to keep in mind here is that we always tend to talk about debates in the extreme.  Keep this in mind; debates are hardly ever actually game changers.  We entertain the extraordinary, but in truth the extraordinary never really happens.  For all the talk that there may be fireworks tonight, in all actuality, tonight’s debate will most likely be pretty boring and probably won’t effect the race very much if at all.

But if something does happen, we’ll be right here, writing about it, and probably making jokes about teabags.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook