It’s the Audience Stupid

One of my predictions prior to the debate was that the media would score it for Obama this time. I based my prediction on the fact that in the previous two debates the media had generally called it a draw or giving McCain a slight nod, and when proclaiming Obama the victor, never coming close to scoring the debate as dramatically as polls have consistently shows. As such, I assumed that the media would have learned from the past two debates, and not wanting to be embarrassingly wrong yet again, would after seeing the same general trends unfold, call the debate for Obama. Needless to say, I was wrong.  Matt Yglesias has a good theory.

To me, the crux of the matter is that McCain can’t get out of the habits that served him very well when he was a Senator building a glowing national reputation largely by talking directly to elite members of the political press.[…]

[…]For example, he alluded at one point to a desire to allow more imports of sugar ethanol. Now if you’re familiar with the details of the ethanol debate, you’ll know that McCain’s stance on this is correct on the merits. And you’ll also know that Obama is a big support of corn ethanol both because they grow corn in downstate Illinois and because they made a big push for the Iowa Caucuses. McCain, by contrast, has a long and principled record on corn ethanol that’s hurt him in Iowa. This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it is a nice illustration of some of McCain’s key campaign themes. And yet he didn’t try to explain it at all. Similarly, he’s had a knack for besting Obama on national security issues nobody cares about, like the relationship of US-Colombia trade deals to the US-Venezuela proxy conflict playing out in the Colombian jungle.[…]

I actually pointed out the corn ethanol point to my roommate last night, who as a “swing voter”, had no previous conception of the issue, or even what the ramifications might mean or say about the candidates. Meanwhile, I thought — and I imagine many of the well informed pundits thought —  “wow, that’s a great point.” Similarly, I tend to grow frustrated when Obama can’t perfectly encapsulate the concept of adverse selection, but Obama probably had most people at “I believe health care is a right.”

“Initial” Reaction

It’s hard at this point — Thursday morning — to really call any reactions with the benefit of the snap polls “initial”, but I’ll do my best.

I think it’s true that this was McCain’s best debate from a technical standpoint. He did force Obama to spend more time defending himself than he had in the past, but I think this was ultimately undermined by his general curmudgeonly countenance. As I stated before the debate, I think the aesthetics of the race have begun to crystallize, and McCain’s visible bitterness did nothing to change the momentum. This, I think, is supported not only by the snap polls (Obama wins by roughly 25% margin), but also by this interesting tidbit from a focus group where Republicans and Independents outnumbered Dems 4-1:

In politics it is generally not considered a good sign when voters are laughing at you, not with you. And by the end of the third and last presidential debate, the undecided voters who had gathered in Denver for Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg’s focus group were “audibly snickering” at John McCain’s grimaces, eye-bulging, and repeated references to “Joe the Plumber.”

As far as policy is concerned, it’s exceptionally difficult to gauge how each candidate was able to convey their ideas, or how those were interpreted by the sort of voters who clamor for “more specifics”, but apparently don’t have internet connections. For example, when John McCain says he wants to “lower taxes on seniors tapping their savings accounts,” it sounds perfectly anodyne until you realize it’s primarily an enormous de facto tax cut for the wealthy. But I doubt most low information voters read this blog, and quite to the contrary, probably think, “that sounds like a great idea, but I really have no idea what that means.”

(I’ll also add that while many voters may not understand the complexities of fiscal policy, one issue many voters do understand is health care. When John McCain waxes poetic about the competitive choice offered in the individual insurance market, many people understand that this competition makes good care in many cases prohibitively expensive or simply impossible to get. You’ll notice that whenever Obama talked about health care, the CNN tracker virtually went off the charts.)

Anyway, this is all a long way of saying that the state of the economy and foreign affairs predispose most voters to agreeing with the sound of Obama’s proposals. Voters know the Republicans (despite John McCain’s “I am not George Bush!” line) royally screwed the pooch these last 8 years, and that handing the government to the same party probably isn’t the best solution. So in summation, McCain performed better than he had from a technical standpoint, but ultimately lost by virtue of being a Republican and by ossifying perceptions of his contemptuousness. Talk about bitter.

Debate Predictions

Making predicitions is always dangerous…but here are mine:


  • This debate will the lowest rated of all four — Obama’s lead is ossifying; despite the darndest effort of the media (who has no incentive to create a compelling storyline and attract viewers) to make the race appear closer than it is, people are beginning to resign themselves to take Obama’s lead for granted. (Anti-jinxing measure: I’m not guaranteeing Obama wins the election, just that the strength of his lead looms).
  • McCain will half-heartedly raise the Ayers issue; it will fall flat.
  • The media will give the debate to Obama — even the media has to admit that merely showing up isn’t good enough down by 8 with 3 weeks to go.

Off Message

Anna Marie Cox at TIME notes this interesting tidbit from the swell of post debate spin:

Steve Schmidt: “It’s a very tough time to have an ‘R’ next to your name, I’m not gonna lie to you.”

Nicolle Wallace: “For a Republican to go head-to-head with a Democrat on the economy, and come out ahead of most of them… that’s extraordinary.”

Umm…aren’t you supposed to be lowering expectations before the debate? I know that Nicolle Wallace has an obligation to wax sanguinely about McCain’s performance, but didn’t she see CNN’s tracking meter? It’s pretty clear that most people believe Obama won the debate, so the only message that’s left is that during times of economic duress, it’s hard for Republicans to compete. Not exactly the right pitch.


Frequent commenter “Mike” makes a noteworthy point about the snap polls:

The “qualified” statistic in the snap polls is astonishing and deserves to be mentioned. 87% for Biden to 42% for Palin? That’s an enormous confidence gap. It demonstrates that none other than Republicans dare to suggest that she is actually qualified for her job… and I bet the number would be lower if the Veep had the CheneyPowers she alluded to. It also shows that she didn’t “right the ship” as much as we may have initially thought.

I think this is right in regards to “righting the ship.” A better cliched expression would that she “stopped the bleeding [momentarily and that the internal hemorrhaging continues apace].”

Not Initial Reactions

It’s a bit easier to write a sensible reaction peice when you’re no longer drunk from an exhilarating game of Debate Bingo and have had a bit more time to consider the impact of the debate. That said, I largely stand by my initial reaction: that is, Palin gained no ground and her failure to do so equates to a loss, her showing up and managing to avoid defecating in her pants notwithstanding. As each opportunity to close the gap passes, the McCain campaign’s task grows increasingly difficult.

As I was explaining to coworker earlier, I think the punditry, and so-called “educated voters” to a certain extent, tend to sell “low information voters” short. The media generally thinks that those who don’t religiously follow politics are incapable of perceiving the legitimacy gap between Biden’s informed and mostly direct answers and Palin’s evasive platitudes. But as the short term polling shows, they can, and Biden staying out of Palin’s way helped.

I’ll add though that when Palin was at her most effective (and I use the term loosely) bloviating about change without actually showing daylight between McCain and Bush, she was essentially echoing Democratic talking points and strengths. So long as McCain and Palin can’t legitimately distance themselves from the Bush Administration without sounding like watered-down Democracts, the politics of the campaign will continue to favor Obama. Coupled with the environment of the campaign — the economy — it will be quite a difficult, but not impossible, path to a McCain victory.

Winning People Who Vote

I’m scrambling to work my way through an RSS reader stuffed with well over 100 posts, trying to pack, and get to work at the same time, so please forgive me for not having a direct link to polling results last night. You’ll have to live with Ezra Klein’s quote:

At the end of the day, it wasn’t about expectations. Palin surpassed hers. Shattered them, in fact. The stumbling, tongue-tied, intellectually uncertain novice who withered before Katie Couric’s steady questioning was absent this evening. Palin was confident, on-message, and at times, sharp. But it didn’t matter. The polls were clear: CNN showed 51 percent for Biden, 36 percent for Palin. CBS, restricting their sample to undecided voters, showed 46 percent for Biden, 21 percent for Palin. Like McCain before her, Palin performed at the top of her game, and it wasn’t enough.

I saw Chuck Todd talking on Morning Joe sort of incredulously remarking that the public might feel that legitimate events in the world (the banking meltdown, War in Iraq, etc.) call for legitimate leaders, not a trained monkey who can recite talking points. Go figure.