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Debate Fallout

September 28th, 2008

Obama seems to have won this one, that much is fairly well agreed upon. A lot of people are talking about the fact that McCain refused to look at Obama as a major point, and while I agree that this was significant, I think that there is another significant reason that most people are not talking about.

First, a little about the eye contact thing. This was immediately apparent; before looking at any blogs, I watched some of the debate. (I recorded it while the wedding was going on and saw a good piece of it after going home that evening, while Sachi took care of some other things) The fact that McCain almost resolutely refused to look at Obama was one of the first things that stood out to me. As some mentioned, it looked like a stance of utter contempt, like he wouldn’t deign to even look down upon Obama, a kind of ultimate gesture of disrespect. That, along with him repeatedly calling Obama naive, saying that he doesn’t understand things which he clearly did understand, made McCain come across as both arrogant and condescending.

What I have not heard commented on is how this played with African-Americans, or even minorities (and perhaps even women) in general. If you’re white and male, this usually will not even register with you, but if you have been at the receiving end of discrimination, McCain’s attitude could very well resonate with your past experiences and come across as more than just condescending. I have no idea how that played out, but would be very interested to see any figures on that. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I have the feeling that the reactions amongst minority groups would be stronger. However, the end effect would not be so great, as McCain has little support from these groups in any case. Suffice it to say that the direction of McCain’s gaze, whether it was a planned tactic or not, worked against him in any case.

The other reason I think Obama won, the reason I think has been overlooked, is that this was the first time that people were able to see Obama and McCain together in an unfiltered setting. Before now, people have seen them apart, but mostly in forums where the media filtered, edited, and gave immediate commentary. McCain’s worst blunders have been either toned down, excused by commentators, or even completely edited out from media coverage, while a good deal of the coverage regarding Obama has been negative to outright hostile–I remember tuning into CNN where they were doing an absolute hit piece on Obama, taking a clip where he said “no one questions my patriotism” and made it out to be a threat of bodily harm in the style of corrupt, “bare-knuckled Chicago politics.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that Jim Lehrer was moderating the debate, giving questions that were as cogent, relevant, and reasonable as the ABC Clinton-Obama debate questions were not. Lehrer is one of the best, if not the best anchors out there, recognition aside, and he ran the debate like a pro, or so it seemed to me.

So while the media has filtered the public’s exposure to the candidates in the past, at today’s forum, people got a chance to see both of them directly, side by side. While McCain appealed to his own people, I think he lost a lot of independents. Obama came across as reasonable, respectful if disagreeing, more warm and personable; McCain came across, as mentioned before, as condescending and cold. With audio only, McCain may have fared better, but the visuals made a big difference.

Both came across as studied and understanding of the issues–which only hurts McCain, as his narrative says that Obama doesn’t understand, something he reiterated throughout the debate. But Obama’s performance showed up how wrong that accusation is, showing that Obama could hold is own and maybe even then some, when face-to-face with an opponent who was supposed to be superior on such issues. Obama also put up a fight, taking McCain on whenever McCain misrepresented him, and I think got his point across. People who may have worried about Obama’s experience were given a chance to see him in a better context relative to McCain. So McCain actually lost ground despite not making any gaffes himself.

It is also here that McCain not only lost the expectations game, but arguably handed that win to Obama. McCain passed on the chance to allow his many gaffes to work for him. The media’s efforts to tone down and even edit out McCain’s rather significant errors in the past made him look more astute before the debate began. Had the public seen more of the real McCain, it could have lowered expectations for him, something which I expected his people to play up. They did not, and I think that average people did not really expect McCain to stumble. As a result, McCain did not gain from such expectations (like Bush did in 2000); had they played this tactic, McCain may have very well been declared the winner on the simple grounds that he didn’t do badly during the debate. Instead, ironically, it was Obama who benefited from low expectations, expectations which the McCain camp itself set up and perpetuated.

If you were watching the debate, you probably noticed the audience reactions showing in the graph at the bottom of the screen. While hardly definitive, they did show that the independents went strongly for Obama; that when Obama spoke, the Independents’ line rose, and fell when McCain started speaking. With minor exceptions, things seemed to go that way for much of the time I watched.

McCain needed a clear win; instead he lost, or at the very best, fought to a draw–which really equals a loss, as the focus on foreign policy was supposed to be his strength.

It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in polls already trending in favor of Obama.

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  1. Tim Kane
    September 28th, 2008 at 13:11 | #1

    The comments you make about how McCain’s attitude might influence minorities is an interesting one I had never heard mentioned before.

    Another interesting analysis come from James Fallows, perhaps the journalist whom I respect above all others, – What Fallows touches on is the theme of the strategic mindset of Obama versus tactics by McCain – the same trap that Hillary fell into against Obama as was brought up here during the primary campaign.

    You can read it here:

    I confess, I fell into the trap. I watched the campaign through a BBC link (no meters). I was frustrated by McCain saying Obama didn’t understand while Obama was saying “John was right”. I wanted McCain destroyed and put away. But as Fallows points out, that would be self defeating, typical Dems win the battle and lose, the war kind of thing.

    I think Obama probably benefits greatly from the Republicans in general, and Fox in particular, attempts to equate Palin’s level of experience and expertise with Obama’s. For that “Foxified” public, they were expecting a Palin level of performance. What they got was something on a whole magnitude of order more competent than she could ever dream of doing.

    By talking Palin up and Obama down and trying to conflate them as comparable to each other, the right set themselves up for an astounding whiplash effect amongst the public that paid attention to them. Of course, too, that’s an example of tactics crashing down upon the rocks of strategy. As Fallows mentions, it’s quite ironic that McCain spent a big chunk of time lecturing Obama on strategy versus tactics. McCain increasingly resembles the drastic tactics and drama and hail mary passes that marked Hillary’s campaign, all the while Obama shows up looking and sound clear, crisp, wise and circumspect and all without breaking a sweat. I love that.

    Obama has said many times that the non-decided public makes it’s decision on or just after the debates on who they will vote for. Obama’s performance was intentional and spot on. I’m still hoping for a crescendo on Election night that will leave the Senate with a fillibuster proof majority, a dominant house majority and a Democratic presidency.

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