Grading the first McCain-Obama debate

U.S. presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama met Friday for the first of three scheduled debates in the general election. Who won? Did the candidates accomplish what they needed to do?

Overall grades on the debate itself:

John McCain B-minus

Barack Obama B-minus

I thought the debate was a wash, if considered on its own. Obama looked much more comfortable than McCain did, but McCain seemed more knowledgeable about foreign policy, the main topic of the evening.

I was struck by the fact that whenever McCain attacked Obama, the CNN “Approve-O-Meter” showed a noticeable plunge in approval among independent voters, much more so than when Obama attacked McCain.

What about the things I previously said the candidates would do, or ought to do?

McCain did very well. He didn’t get too deep into the economy, but conveyed the impression that he was mighty mad at somebody. He displayed his expertise and experience in foreign policy to good effect. On the other hand, while Obama usually is the one who seems to be talking down to McCain, McCain was the one who came off as a condescending ass by repeatedly saying Obama “doesn’t understand.”

Obama did a great job of getting to the point in many of his answers, even phrasing his responses as numbered lists, which people love. He gave the short answer, and only then went back to get into the details. However, I think Obama missed out by not going back to the economy for context even when the questions turned to foreign policy. He also didn’t manage to provoke McCain’s temper, but that would have been merely gravy for Obama, so I don’t think it mattered that much.

Grades on the success of the debate in the broader context of the campaign:

John McCain B-minus

Barack Obama B-plus

For John McCain, the debate capped off a spectacularly awful two weeks for his campaign. For a week and a half after Sept. 15, when Lehman Brothers went belly-up and McCain said that the fundamentals of the American economy were strong, the Arizona senator came out with a different message about the economy every day. And when he finally did take clear action, it was to “suspend” his campaign and hustle back to Washington, there to insert himself into a Wall Street bailout plan under consideration by a committee of which the senator is not a member — with questionable impact, at best. On top of that, his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, floundered embarrassingly in a one-on-one interview with Katie Couric, who’s not exactly a crushing interrogator (I can think of a number of reporters I know personally who would have eaten Palin for lunch, then picked their teeth with the cast-off bones of minor PR flunkies before retiring to the corner bar for an afternoon of dice and cocktails).

What McCain needed was either an exceptional performance on his part, or a major stumble from Obama. Instead, the mostly pretty good performance from McCain was muddied by fact that Obama held his own in spite of clearly being less expert — and less experienced — than McCain, and Obama appeared every bit as presidential as McCain did. So McCain did well, but not well enough.

Simply keeping up with McCain on foreign policy, on the other hand, was an accomplishment for Obama. It would have been a coup for him to make serious points against the senior senator in a debate centered on one of McCain’s strongest subjects. Obama didn’t do that, and he failed to turn the conversation toward the economy as aggressively as he probably should have. Nevertheless, bad news about the economy generally favors out-party candidate Obama, which gives him a better context for the debate. With this context in mind, because Obama turned in a passably presidential performance and kept his opponent from establishing a clear victory, the debate turned out better for him than for McCain.

Other views

For an interesting alternative opinion on the debate, check out the analysis by San Francisco-based communication guru Bert Decker. Decker looks at the debate from an almost purely impressionistic perspective, which is in line with his expertise is in the communication of trust. That is, Decker believes that a speaker must convey believability before a listener can even really hear what the speaker is saying.

Also interesting: Two polls taken Friday night — which means they’re imperfect empirical research because their samples included only people whom they could reach on Friday night, so take them with a little salt — put Obama significantly ahead in overall impression. Poll respondents also said they thought Obama was more in touch with the problems of their own lives than was McCain. An Associated Press story on the polls is here.

Parting Shots

CNN’s Approve-O-Meter — or whatever the network called its approval ticker that appeared at the bottom of the screen during the debate — failed for three reasons. First, it was too hard to read the legend on the left explaining that the red line signified approval from Republicans in a selected audience, the blue line stood for Democrats and the green line stood for independents. Second, it was impossible to tell whether the lines, as they emerged from the right side of the display, signified results in real time or were delayed by some unknown length of time. Third, the graph was zoomed out too far to see the separation among the three lines, so it was annoyingly difficult to see when approval ratings changed. The overall result was just dull. It would have been better to have a three-bar graph showing a zero line, and colored bars extending above or below the zero line to indicate approval or disapproval from the three groups. This not only would make it easier for viewers to detect the differences among the groups, but would better represent real-time impressions of what the candidates were saying at the moment.

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5 Responses to Grading the first McCain-Obama debate

  1. rjjrdq says:

    Here’s my grade, and I can tell you, it’s not close to a B…

  2. Bert Decker says:

    Great insight Tom. I don’t disagree with you at all, and also glad you made mention of the response meter – a great idea gone awry.

  3. Tom Prete says:

    Thanks, Bert. This is praise from Caesar.

  4. DNC + RNC = ROT says:

    Spoil what? Waste what? Steal what?

    Barack Obama we do not doubt your intelligence. To be an effective leader one must also display honesty, compassion, & guts. Stand with Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, & Cynthia McKinney. NOT John McCain. Your choice – your move.

  5. huxbux says:

    McCain exceeded my expectations. I was expecting a JFK/Nixon type outcome. I was a bit disappointed in McCain’s excessive use in platitudes or dismissive rebuttals. He rarely seemed to map out his own policy . I think part of the reason I view McCain’s performance better then expected is because Obama repeatedly avoided attacking McCain directly.

    Keep up the good posting Tom.

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