Obama’s job interview

Two quick responses to last night’s debate between McCain and Obama. I’ll use a couple of live-blogging quotes from Andrew Sullivan to introduce my points.

What strikes me about Obama is his forcefulness. He doesn’t sound academic or pointy-headed. He seems decisive and executive.

That observation is key. If voters share Sullivan’s perception on that point, I think you’ll see an Obama bump in the polls.

Most voters would really, really like to vote for the Democratic candidate in this election. The Republican record these past eight years has been abysmal. The country is in a mess, and the economic crisis has underscored that reality in a very big way.

Voters want to vote Democrat, but one big question mark has persistently hung over Obama’s head:  Is this guy up to the job? That’s a gateway question for voters. It matters far more than any policy differences between the two candidates.

Therefore, the debate was primarily a job interview for Obama. If undecided voters perceived him as “forceful … decisive and executive,” I expect the polls will break in his direction.

Second point:

It strikes me as a mistake for McCain to end the debate on his commitment to staying in Iraq indefinitely. Obama’s emphasis on the broader global conflict and our broader responsibilities will reach more people.

Again, Sullivan underscores a key issue.

McCain wore the Iraq war all night. In part, Obama pinned it on him; in part, McCain volunteered to wear it. McCain wanted to talk about the surge, which I can understand. He also wanted to depict a timeline for withdrawal as a defeat; one which would have catastrophic consequences for American security.

That was a serious tactical mistake.

There were various points at which one candidate or the other “scored”, like a boxer landing a jab. That doesn’t matter nearly as much as the dominant impression the debate leaves in people’s minds. And the impression McCain left was, I view foreign policy through the lens of the war in Iraq.

CNN had a focus group, divided between Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Their reaction was shown in terms of different coloured lines that scrolled across the screen to measure whether they approved or disapproved of the candidate’s statements.

Whenever McCain was talking about Iraq, the Democrats and the independents were united in disapproval.

The specific segment that Sullivan is referring to, near the very end of the evening, lasted several minutes. When McCain was speaking, the red “Republican” line hovered a few points above neutral. The other two lines were below neutral even while McCain was talking about the surge. If that is indicative of how voters perceived things, it’s a very bad indicator for McCain.

In sum, Obama won the debate, particularly among undecided voters, insofar as he was perceived to be forceful, decisive, and executive.

And McCain lost the debate, particularly among independents, by doubling down on his support for the war in Iraq.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erDweet
    Sep 27, 2008 @ 13:31:56

    Stephen, I think you’re reading too many blogs with whom you agree, and have an unrealistic view of what the actual probable voters in “flyover country” thought of the first debate. Most, imo, tbelieve it to be a draw – with both candidates receiving points but neither scoring a knock-out punch.

    Most conservatives are mad at McC for letting O off the hook on just “who” is responsible for the current economic travail. The consensus among middle of the road observers is it was caused about 75% by the dem and 25% by the repubs, but the dems are sure trying to ooze out from under that.

    I just posted on a significant issue I took away from the debate, iyi.

    Good luck on October 14 and cheers from the Monterey Bay


  2. Stephen
    Sep 27, 2008 @ 16:22:45

    I’d expect you to give me more credit than that. I’m not in the habit of channelling other people’s opinions. I watched every moment of the debate, and the opinions expressed above are 100% my own.

    Yes, I introduced them with two quotes from Andrew Sullivan. But the thoughts were in my head before I read Sullivan’s blog.

    Who won the debate? You should take a look at the polls reported on Andrew Sullivan’s site: one from CNN and one from CBS.

    To provide one data point: CBS surveyed undecided voters. 39% thought Barack Obama won the night; 24%, McCain; 37% thought it was a draw. Advantage Obama.

    The Fox focus group said Obama won the night.

    And Nate Silver reports that Obama went fom a +18 on “understanding your needs and problems” before the debate to a +56 after the debate.

    No, I don’t form my opinions solely by reading bloggers who agree with me.


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