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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First impressions of the second Obama-McCain debate: McCain fails

October 7, 2008

Initial overall impressions of the Obama-McCain debate:

Obama: C-plus

McCain: F

I’ll post a more substantive analysis tomorrow, but John McCain failed to shift the momentum of the presidential campaign at tonight’s town hall debate. He scored some points here and there — and Barack Obama’s performance was largely dull, marred by go-nowhere attacks and counterattacks on McCain — but McCain needed a big night tonight and he failed to deliver. McCain’s grade on the town hall debate will be a bit better once I can analyze it in more detail, but the combined grade of the debate itself and the debate viewed in the broader context of the campaign still produces a failing score.

There are still four weeks left before Election Day and anything is possible, but unless McCain can find some other way to completely shift the direction of the race for the White House, he’s done.

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Second Obama-McCain presidential debate preview

October 7, 2008

I’ve got a teething baby who needs me, so I’ll make this short. U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain meet tonight at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. for the second debate of the general election. What do the candidates need to do to win the town hall-style debate? How does it fit in with their overall campaigns?

Some analysts are already predicting that Obama has sewn up the election (if today were Election Day) and a number of others are convinced he’s very close to doing so. Polls show Obama has nailed the blue states, has opened up leads in some battleground states, and is pressing McCain hard in some red stronghold states such as North Carolina.

This means that Obama’s task tonight is simply to avoid a major blunder. He needs to be conservative (temperamentally, not politically) in his responses to audience questions and not give some wild off-the-cuff answer that hasn’t already been through the focus groups and practice sessions of his campaign apparatus. He needs to remember, as he did so well in the first debate, to give the headline answer first before delving into details. He needs to seize plausible opportunities to discuss the economic crisis, as long as he answers the questions put to him. He also needs to convey ease and confidence in his body language. In short, he needs to keep doing most of the things he’s been doing — except for the recent counterattacks on McCain.

McCain has a much harder task tonight. He’s behind, and running out of ammunition. Ideally, when the inevitable question about the economy comes his way, McCain needs to give a spectacular answer that not only shows he understands viscerally the impact on average Americans, but also has a plan simple enough to articulate in a few minutes and sufficiently different from Republican economic policy of the past eight years. Failing that, the only ammo McCain seems to have left is to attack Obama as a person. He needs to disrupt the Obama game and change the subject, forcing Obama to react to him. In a tight race, playing up fears about your opponent can be very effective, but I don’t think McCain can make up enough points this way to even put him within striking distance of Obama. Another problem for McCain is that this kind of attack typically doesn’t play well in town hall debates, and it’s possible that no one will ask directly about the subject of any of the character attacks the McCain campaign has made against Obama. So absent that really spectacular answer about how McCain would fix the economy and protect the average American, McCain is stuck having to delicately sow seeds of doubt about Barack Obama.

It would be nice to hear some honest talk from both the candidates about how they’ll have to change their tax-cut plans — neither one will be able to carry out the plans they articulated before the recent acceleration of the economic crisis — but I don’t expect either one of them to even own up to the need for changes.

The debate starts at 6 p.m. Pacific time, 9 p.m. Eastern. On almost everywhere.

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Seven first impressions of Palin-Biden debate

October 2, 2008

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrapped up their only debate of the 2008 election half an hour ago. Some initial thoughts and observations:

  1. Sarah Palin did very, very well at the start of the debate. She played Sarah Palin’s game, which was smart. If you can’t be better, be different — sometimes it’s just as effective.
  2. In the front end of the debate, when Palin spoke generally about the plight of the midde class and a system stacked against them, CNN’s somewhat improved Approve-O-Meter pegged out with positive feedback.
  3. When Biden talked about his own middle-class background, he likewise garnered strong positive feedback.
  4. When Palin talked about deregulation, the Approve-O-Meter showed a neutral or mildly positive reaction from the men in CNN’s focus group of undecided voters. The line indicating women’s approval usually plunged.
  5. Biden displayed his superior knowledge of foreign policy (and the issues in general) to great effect in the second half of the debate, while it was often difficult to discern an actual answer from the Alaska governor.
  6. In the second half of the debate, Palin stumbled noticeably. Her response to the question about what branch of government properly comprises the office of the vice president was vague, rambling and incoherent. She sounded like a beauty pageant contestant stunned by the glare of the spotlights. Biden, on the other hand, showed that he knows exactly what the vice president does and where the office fits into the constitutional structure of U.S. government.’
  7. I only saw Sarah Palin’s hands once that I remember. In that fraction of a second, I couldn’t tell what she held in her right hand, but she was squeezing it like she was trying to break it. How revealing it would be if we could see the hands of the debaters as well as their faces. People often are quite guarded with their facial expressions, while their hands provide a truer window to their souls. If you doubt this, the next time you interview someone or hold a one-on-one meeting, place a paper clip on the table within reach of the other person. Nervous people may play with it unconsciously and almost uncontrollably. Confident people may never so much as glance at it. Savvy people may move it out of the way before it becomes a temptation. It’s a cheap trick, but effective.

Overall, looking at the debate by itself, although I think Palin did better than expected, Biden did better still.

I’ll post a more substantive analysis Friday. in the meantime, read a complete transcript of the debate here.

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