Grading the second McCain-Obama debate

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

Here’s the “so what” factor for Tuesday night’s debate, the reason Barack Obama came out ahead despite a tepid performace and John McCain failed despite being animated and earnest.

Obama may not have won over a lot of undecided voters with the second presidential debate, but he didn’t stumble. For him, it would have been great to shine in the debate, but it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t see anything that would clearly move the Obama campaign forward, but given his lead in the polls that’s a hit he could afford to take.

McCain, on the other hand, let down his own campaign last night in a way that makes it even more urgent for him to shift the direction of the race in the next four weeks.

If there was one thing John McCain needed to do in the debate, just one, it was to present a clear summation of what he intends to do about the current U.S. economic crisis. He failed.

John McCain did offer a relatively new idea last night to rescue homeowners over-extended on their mortgages, suggesting that nearly half of the recently approved federal bailout of more than $700 billion should go to federal buyouts of the mortgages held by troubled homeowners. McCain said the idea was all his — “It’s my proposal, it’s not Sen. Obama’s proposal, it’s not President Bush’s proposal” — but that’s not exactly true. According to, “The recently passed $700 billion rescue package already grants the treasury secretary authority to undertake just such a program,” and “Obama himself had urged this as the package was being considered.”

Let’s be sporting and give this one to McCain. McCain’s problem last night wasn’t whose plan it is, it’s that he couldn’t sell it. McCain backed into mentioning the proposal, admitted it would be expensive in the next sentence, barely got a reaction — if CNN’s Approve-O-Meter was any indication — and then just moved on. This proposal represented a golden opportunity for McCain to change the perception that he doesn’t have a plan and to make the news media talk about something other than Obama after the debate. He should have pumped his proposal over and over and over again, but he botched it. (There’s a piece of military slang McCain surely knows that might be more descriptive, but I’ll keep it clean.) Instead of taking advantage of a chance to change what people are talking about, McCain kept returning to scattershot attacks on Obama.

Sure, the McCain campaign did its best to push the proposal in the media on Wednesday, and the fact that the campaign was able to get good coverage proves there still is some life left. But the man whose name is on the ticket couldn’t get the job done on Tuesday, and there are many voters who watched that debate but won’t watch any other political stuff over the next few weeks. McCain needed that debate.

Four weeks remain before Election Day, and it certainly is possible for the tables to turn in that time. And as I wrote yesterday, in a tight race McCain’s efforts to make Obama seem different and sketchy probably would be effective. But those attacks alone aren’t going to change the numbers enough to help McCain in this race, unless he’s got a real humdinger — with video — up his sleeve.

Furthermore, McCain can’t afford to wait that long. One important reason is early voting and the increasing importance of vote-by-mail. Some states, such as Ohio, already have opened up their polls for early voting, and large numbers of voters who will vote by mail this year will be making their decisions weeks before Nov. 4. If these voters make their decisions before McCain can change the momentum, he loses the race. McCain needs to change the subject if he is to turn this race to his favor, and he needs to move swiftly.

Other views

As I’ve done with the other debates, I’ll suggest San Francisco communications guru Bert Decker’s blog for another take on the debate. This time, Bert has a pretty stark assessment of McCain’s performance.

Parting shots

CNN’s Approve-O-Meter still has its flaws, as I’ve noted before. I would love to see CNN expand the size of the focus group. But the Approve-O-Meter still represents an interesting piece of additional information when watching the debates, and it’s one reason I spend more time during the debates with CNN than with any other source.

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