Saturday, September 27, 2008

The First Debate

Russell Baker, who covered the first Kennedy-Nixon debate for the New York Times, offers a lesson on the danger of snap judgments in his memoir, The Good Times:
Since I was on deadline and had to get the story to New York by filing separate paragraphs as the debate progressed, I kept my head down, listening, taking notes, and typewriting throughout.
It was surprisingly dull, hardly a debate at all, and I thought Nixon had a slight edge in what little argument there had been. With no real blows struck, the event seemed a dud, and my story's lead said the two had "argued genteelly."
With the story finished, I went out in the hall to find the Kennedy people ebullient. Pierre Salinger, the press man, greeted me with an ear-to-ear grin and said something about scoring a great triumph. I figured this was Pierre trying to influence my coverage, but as I talked to more and more people it was clear they thought Kennedy had indeed won a great victory.

And of course, he had. I missed it completely because I had been too busy taking notes and writing to get more than fleeting glimpses of what the country was seeing on the screen. Most of the country had been looking, not listening, and what they saw was a frail and exhausted-looking Nixon perspiring nervously under pressure. (pp. 325-6)
Immediately after last night's debate, I thought the outcome was roughly even, and concluded that a draw was good news for Obama. After all, he is leading in the polls, and foreign policy is supposed to be McCain's strength. But the point in an election is not what I think, but what lots of other people think. On that score, Obama had a good night. According to the instant poll from CBS News, Obama had the better night:
Thirty-nine percent of these uncommitted debate watchers said Obama won the debate. Twenty-four percent said McCain won, and another 37 percent thought it was a tie.
Nearly half of those uncommitted voters who watched the debate said that their image of Obama changed for the better as a result. Just eight percent say their opinion of Obama got worse, and 46 percent reported no change in their opinions.
McCain saw less improvement in his image. Thirty-two percent have improved their image of McCain as a result of the debate, but 21 percent said their views of him are now worse than before.
Ezra Klein offers a good explanation of why a draw on foreign policy equals a win for Obama:
But that is not the broader media perception of John McCain's foreign policy. He is a Respected Voice. His authority is assumed. Admired. And starting from that baseline, the debate must have looked quite different. If you thought McCain the only candidate in the race able to talk confidently and fluently about foreign affairs, you were disabused of that notion tonight. Many in the media, it seems, held that notion.
And then there is McCain's demeanor. Any number of commenters have noted his grumpiness and lack of eye contact with Obama. Marc Ambinder writes that McCain seemed truly put out that voters might prefer his opponent:
McCain did not filter himself, letting his frustration and contempt for Obama show; he wouldn't let himself look at the challenger. He seemed to be channeling that famous Saturday Night Live skit featuring "Michael Dukakis" who looks to the camera and says, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." Over and over, he adopted the pose of an impatient school teacher: Obama "doesn't understand" or Obama "is naïve."
It would have been sufficient for Obama to convince voters he belonged on the stage and was ready to be president, which he clearly did. John McCain could not counter Obama's gain on that score by saying, through his words and his demeanor, that he didn't think Obama belonged there on stage with him. Early impressions often don't last. But sometime they do, as with Nixon's sweating and Gore's sighing. Are these impressions fair? No. Gore probably couldn't believe he was losing to that guy either. But Obama's self assurance and McCain's seeming petulance may take hold with the public and influence voters in the final weeks of the campaign.


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