Saturday, September 27, 2008

First Act of Public Mass Debate Shun

So, it was tempting to shun it, but I broke down and watched the debate, you know, on television, like most everyone else. My cell phone was going off like crazy with text messages from all the people I follow on Twitter, almost all of whom were rooting for Obama like he was their favorite sports team. No one seemed interested in an impartial examination of the issues, it was all about scoring points. No big surprise there. That's the sophisticated, media savvy view, after all. Very depressing.

My former MA student Mike Plugh, an ardent Obama supporter, posted a thoughtful, albeit one-sided blog: What Wins a Debate. My friend and colleague Paul Levinson, who also has been cheering rather loudly for Obama posted a similar kind of assessment: Both Candidates Speak Well, But Obama Looks More Presidential in 1st Debate. But it's an old, old commonplace that viewers committed to a candidate will typically perceive that their candidate won the debate.

Loathe as I am to lower myself to the level of political analyst, I think I will say some things here because I'm not sure anyone else is saying them. I don't have a candidate myself, so I do think this is an impartial assessment. And what I have to say has nothing to do with issues or positions, just how well they did as actors in front of a camera in the Greatest Quiz Show Ever Told. And I don't think it's going to make much difference who's elected, and this was reinforced by the general lack of disagreement between the two candidates on many issues, the biggest argument being on budget and taxes that amount to the tinniest percentage of things, and over whether it was a good or bad decision to go into Iraq, which cannot be proven either way and is a moot point in any event.

So, on to the handicapped horse race.

First, and most importantly, the outcome of this debate was pretty much a draw. No one screwed up in any major way, there were no really dramatic moments, the debate was substantive and a bit dull, and I don't think that anyone who is undecided will have been moved to one side or another by what they saw in the first debate. Not much entertainment value, I bet lots of folks changed the channel after half an hour or so. This was the most even-handed debate since George H. W. Bush squared off against Mike Dukakis. So, I expect that the polls will show that the debate had little or not impact on people's voting decisions at this point.

Overall, I think McCain won on the nonverbal cues. He looked good, mostly relaxed, did not overheat, employed a conversational style reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, but also was assertive and authoritative, establishing dominance for most of the debate. Next to him, Obama looked like the smart kid who knows a lot, but thinks he knows everything, while McCain looked like the firm and confident adult, perhaps a bit of a strict disciplinarian. This was especially the case when the debate shifted from the economy to foreign policy about forty minutes into it. Of course, quite a few viewers may have changed the channel by then, negating McCain's advantage.

I think that many people who did not follow the Democratic primaries would expect Obama to be highly charismatic in the debates, based on his reputation, and they would have been disappointed with his style, which was relatively unemotional, at times wonkish. He's no grat communicator (you remember, that's what they called Reagan, who was not all that good at making speeches like Obama is, but was brilliant on camera).

On the other hand, Obama did hold his own, and as the less experienced, and more exotic of the two candidates, this helps him look acceptable as an alternative to McCain, and as someone who could indeed be president. In other words, the two candidates came across as relative equals in their presentation of self, and this could only help Obama overcome the resistance to his candidacy from voters who would be otherwise sympathetic to the kind of candidacy he represents.

So, my assessment is that overall McCain did a little better, offset by the fact that Obama held his own as the new kid on the block. The outcome: even-steven!

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