Saturday, September 27, 2008

Quo Vadis, Undecideds?

My initial impressions of last night's Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain were less than whole-heartedly supportive of Mr. Obama's performance. There were several areas in which I felt that the opportunity to damage Mr. McCain passed by the wayside, and at least one in which I felt Mr. Obama left himself needlessly vulnerable by not forcefully responding to an attack, either.

Most of these dissonances were experienced during the first segment of the debate, the bailout talks, particularly since Senator Obama demurred on John McCain's erratic, borderline wacky behavior of the past few days ("Senator McCain, you've been telling the American people I'm reckless for ten months; how much more reckless does it get than quitting your campaign to fly to Washington and dynamite a fragile compromise on the bailout bill?"). He also passed on the opportunity to undermine McCain's promise to cut taxes ("With a Democratic congress, Senator, you're not actually going to do anything on domestic policy, other than chew up the next four years of the American peoples' time, threatening vetoes"); and he needlessly ceded the field on the subject of earmarks, making him look apologetic for his own record instead of hitting back harder on McCain's--which is nothing short of abysmal.

On the foreign policy side of the ledger, Mr. Obama seemed much stronger. He was loaded for bear on the subject of Iraq and had the advantage of a downhill field, anyway, since the public is so monumentally sick of the conflict. But spending the first half-hour of the contest talking about the Wall Street meltdown should have helped Obama more than it helped McCain, and that seems rather not to have been the case.

One possible explanation for this disparity is that the various things that occurred to me in real time to say, had by their very nature not been vetted through the campaign debate team or focus-grouped. If your whole (six-digit) job is to keep your candidate from blowing this whole thing with a gaffe, the first lesson you would have beaten into his head over the past week is, THOU SHALT NOT TALK OFF-SCRIPT. If I'm right, then the end result would naturally be a performance that seemed less than completely responsive to the other fellow, and certainly less spontaneous. But personality plays a big part in all of this, and on balance one could argue that Obama's temperament may have been far better served by sticking with a slightly less confrontational, slightly less reactive, slightly less free-wheeling approach. What might have worked for a hypothetical Senator Dave O'Gorman in such a setting might, in the mouth of Senator Barack Obama, have sounded forced and shrill and too far out-of-character.

Which brings us to the other major problem with trying to analyze a debate: We all bring our own expectations and our own anxieties, neither of which track with those of the remaining persuadable voters in the middle. As much as I wish Senator Obama could have nicked-up his opponent in the ways described above, it was Obama who won the undecided voters, according to an instant poll conducted last night by CBS; it was Obama who won the women's vote, according to another instant poll conducted last night by CNN; and it was Obama who won--going away--the votes of all those many people who were forced by the time-slot to witness the whole thing from their neighborhood Applebee's on a ceiling-mounted TV with the sound off. (And no, I don't have a poll with which to back up that last conclusion: I don't need one.)

These are all crucial voting blocs for Obama to either win-over or hold, and I can't in good faith empathize with any of them, any more than I can claim in good faith to empathize with most of the reactions being registered by most of the electorate on most of what has happened for this entire campaign. Obama is at this very moment winning 66-26 on the CNN main-page's admittedly unscientific poll, which is about as far to my guy's advantage as I could have imagined things being after the most lop-sided debate performance in the history of the universe--and certainly wholly out of step with what I felt had actually happened.

This being said, even the pundit reactions afterward were far more ambitiously supportive of Senator Obama than I was prepared to be, with Mark Halprin leading the charge (he of the notorious "I wonder what John Kerry meant just then when he said 'global test'" remark, in 2004), giving the debate squarely to Obama, by a grade of A- to B-. Over on ABC news, George Stephanopolous graded things a little closer, with Obama winning B+ to B. Though he did take some time in his analysis on Nightline to comment that McCain had looked "washed out," while Obama had appeared "even darker than ususal" (emph. orig.) -- two comments which, if there were any justice in the world, would have instantly alienated him with, well, just about every registered voter in the country. I would put the link here but ABC would rather I spend thirty minutes on its website, watching the same plug for a dreadful-looking new TV-series, while searching in vain for any actual content. Send your angry cards and letters to Walt Disney, care of hell.

Other reactions, courtesy of the positively outstanding political news aggregator site, Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, included Ezra Klein: "Give McCain this: He did an extremely good stylistic job in an extremely hard situation. I doubt he could have offered a better performance. But the polls suggest that undecideds broke hard for Obama anyway. Which suggests that McCain's problem is what he's saying, not how he's saying it." James Fallows took time to note something that I couldn't, with my head buried in a laptop: "Obama was acting as if this is a conversation; McCain, as if he could not acknowledge the other party in the discussion." Indeed in the blog comment space, all the buzz this morning is about McCain's angry, condescending-looking posture and apparent lack of eye-contact.

In the end, Senator Obama didn't actually need to do any of the things that I spent the actual debate wishing he would: He didn't need to land a decisive blow. He didn't need to call McCain out on some of the Republican's Orwellian contradictions. He didn't need to be scrappy and confrontational, the way I am scrappy and confrontational. Ronald Reagan, lest we forget, was the choice many more Americans wanted to make than had actually made it, at the time of the first debate--frightened as they were by his supposed recklessness. Reagan took the stage in that first debate, acted Presidential, and the matter was decided on that basis alone.

If the analogy is a valid one, then all Senator Obama had to do last night was fight McCain to a draw--and by all accounts he did much, much better than that.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


Anonymous said...

I took Key Grip's advice and walked some of my neighborhood today. I found out some interesting things: 1. many people are not home on Sat.
2. the people who support Obama (8) are STRONG supporters. Several nearly grabbed me and kissed me. Wow!
3. the people (only 3)who don't support him, really hate him. (that Black thing?)
4. I found 4 people who were not registered to vote, but took the cards so they can vote for Obama.
5. In such a tiny sample (43 households), I found 2 felons who can't vote for for him.I talked to my supervisor about it and they said that even though Crist had restored the right to be reinstated, it was still a series of exceedingly high hurdles to jump. Yeesh.
Interesting conclusions, yes?

Dave O'Gorman said...

The most important aspect of this report is the first sentence. My only follow-up question is, did you have a walk-list from the campaign, or were you doing this independently? Your nearest field office can supply you with a list of addresses to knock and some thoughts on a brief script, so that you can maximize the value of your efforts. Still, even independent effort is better than none.

Anonymous said...

The walk-lists are official lists from the campaign. Obama should win on "community organizing" alone.
I went to another meeting today, and asked what the most important thing to do for them and they said that walking was it. Now I truly believe it, because I got a contribution of $50.00 for the campaign. I am convinced that the man would not have whipped out his checkbook, had I not dropped by with my spiel.