The Dim-Post

September 27, 2008

Post Debate Note

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 4:42 pm

I missed the start of the US presidential debate – I was downtown eating pancakes at Capitol. My initial impression is that it was basically a tie. Conventional wisdom is that a tie is considered a loss for the losing candidate and right now that’s McCain.

I found Senator McCain’s body language fascinating: he appears to genuinely despise Obama and hold him in contempt. He thinks he’s a lightweight and a joke. That’s a fine attitude for the pro-McCain bloggers to adopt but the Senator needs to take his opponent seriously. This guy came out of nowhere and beat the Clintons and he’s currently leading in the polls.

Another point I noticed was that McCains jokes were very much aimed at the political in-crowd. He stated that he didn’t have his own presidential seal yet (a dig at the stupid Obama seal the Democrat has on the side of his plane) and referred to Kim Jong Ill of North Korea as ‘dear leader’. Nobody who isn’t a politics junkie (and that’s most people) would have had the slightest idea what he was talking about.


James Fallows at the Atlantic has a pretty good rundown of how the candidates fared:

But the personas that the two men chose to present in the debate indicated the difference in a profound way. The truths of debates are these:

  • Emotional messages, which are variants on “how do I feel about this person?”, are all that matter in presidential debates. Issues discussions are significant mainly to the extent they shape these impressions. For instance: a candidate’s view on the economy feeds the impression of whether he sympathizes with “people like me.” Or views on foreign policy feed the impression on whether he would be “a leader we can trust.”
  • Barring a truly disastrous performance, each side’s partisans will think their candidate did well, and will be reinforced in the reasons for supporting the person they already like. Thus John McCain supporters will think he sounded confident and masterful; Obama supporters will think he kept presenting the big-picture perspective on national security and the economy. Which means therefore:
  • The audience that matters is people who start out undecided or uncertain — and finally are looking for emotional reassurance about who they can imagine as president for the next four years. In general, such viewers are only now starting to pay serious attention to the campaign — in contrast to people already committed to helping (or stopping) one of the candidates. That is why the first debate is a unique “re-launch” opportunity for the candidates to present themselves to people who realize it’s time to make up their minds.

Everything John McCain did on stage last night was consistent with trying to score tactical points in those 90 minutes. He belittled Obama with the repeated “he doesn’t understand”s; he was explicitly insulting to him in saying at the end “I honestly don’t believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience” for the job (a line Joe Biden dare not use so bluntly on Sarah Palin); and implicitly he was shockingly rude and dismissive in refusing ever to look Obama in the eye. Points scored — in the short term, to the cheers of those already on his side.

Obama would have pleased his base better if he had fought back more harshly in those 90 minutes — cutting McCain off, delivering a similarly harsh closing judgment, using comparably hostile body language, and in general acting more like a combative House of Commons debater. Those would have been effective tactics minute by minute.

But Obama either figured out, or instinctively understood, that the real battle was to make himself seem comfortable, reasonable, responsible, well-versed, and in all ways “safe” and non-outsiderish to the audience just making up its mind about him.

My initial impression was that it was a draw but the internal polls now being released suggest that Obama overwhelmingly won with undecided voters:

The CBS poll of undecideds has more confirmatory detail. Obama went from a +18 on “understanding your needs and problems” before the debate to a +56 (!) afterward. And he went from a -9 on “prepared to be president” to a +21.


  1. Thanks for all that – i’ve really wanted to see a non-partisan analysis of the debate (DPF thinks McCain won, The Standard thinks Obama won – wow), thought what Fallows has written looks like it was could’ve been written several days ago.

    Comment by Stephen — September 28, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

  2. So did anyone come away from the debate with any idea about what the most powerful person in the world might get up to on the world stage next year?

    I’ve seen plenty of analysis of body language etc but next to nothing on issues. was there any difference in terms of policy – what concete things they may do – between the two candidates?

    Comment by Neil — September 29, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  3. Need to be careful with CBS poll – more democrats watch the debate than republican and the debate polls therefore have an element of in built bias.

    A couple of issues on body language, in particular McCain’s, people forget that he has damage to his arms (can’t raise them above shoulder height) and this effects his posture and presentation. This works in the favour of Obama from an inital presentational view for people and a negative on the televisual of McCain. Again this shows the importance in reasonably close presidential races of the visual appeal over the reality (and all presidential races are a bit unreal). Kennedy was the start of this and it was actually a close race with Nixon until the TV debates. Regan went one step ahead with the gorgeous TV ads (in wheat field etc). I think Bush to some extent out did Gore in looking normal in 2000 and again against Kerry.

    So on this basis Obama should be seen as points ahead over McCain. The question is whether this will have an impact on voters, or more interestingly will the debate between Palin (current antichrist of the western world) vs Biden (some old dude) have an impact? In particular if Palin manages to note loose (as opposed to wining).

    Her appearance at the convention where she didn’t fluff her speech like so many commentators were predicting gave the appearance of winning regardless of what she said.

    Comment by What would Hayek say — September 29, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: