Grading the second McCain-Obama debate

October 8, 2008

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

My initial impression of this town hall-style event was that it was uncommonly dull, and I’m the sort of person who gets all worked up reading an environmental-impact report.

Barack Obama, I knew, didn’t have to wow anyone last night. Unless the world around him changes radically in the next couple of weeks, Obama’s mission is to keep stimulating voters who’ve already decided to support him and to deny McCain the ability to rest. Obama needs to be vigilant against positive poll numbers lulling him into becoming complacent, of course, but he also needs to watch against trying to push so hard against McCain that he takes unnecessary chances. Still, Obama seemed off his game Tuesday, and I think he spent too much time counterattacking McCain instead of steering perceptions in the direction he wanted.

What’s interesting to me is that I don’t think it was McCain’s debate performance at the debate that forced Obama into a reactive stance: McCain was jumpy, vague and awkward, and he didn’t effectively make a case for a McCain presidency. Instead, Obama seemed to have decided before the debate to respond to and counterattack against McCain, and it didn’t come off well.

I’ve written before that I think McCain conservatism is much better for our nation than the Bush brand, so it was with some regret that I watched McCain’s ineffective performance last night.

All right, so what grades do the candidates get?

Keep in mind that I’m grading two different things in this analysis. First, I grade the candidates on their performance in the debate, looking at it as a stand-alone contest that could be reduced to box scores like a baseball game. This tells who “won” or “lost” the debate but doesn’t get into what that means for the campaign as a whole. Second, I assess the debate not as a single night’s contest, but rather as part of the continuum of the campaign. In other words, how does the debate fit into the context of the race as a whole? The candidate who “loses” the debate doesn’t necessarily hurt his campaign, and a candidate who “wins” doesn’t necessarily help himself going forward.

Overall grades on the debate itself

John McCain C-plus

Barack Obama C-plus

The second McCain-Obama presidential debate was so boring I’m not going to spend much time on the debate itself.

As far as McCain’s performance went, he got in a number of good points and clearly won a couple of the questions, but overall he didn’t produce a memorable narrative. In the first debate he gave a good narrative of himself, but this time he couldn’t articulate a narrative of how a President McCain would turn around the American economy. There were bits here and there, but nothing that came together in a memorable way.

If all an undecided voter saw of Barack Obama was Tuesday’s debate, he would be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. He wasn’t awful: Like McCain, Obama got in some points and dominated some of the questions. He also did better according to the gut-check that CNN’s Approve-O-Meter provided — strikingly better among women. But there still was no there there.

Grades on the debate in the broader context of the campaign

John McCain F

Barack Obama C-plus

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