Friday, September 26, 2008

Barack Friday for McCain-Palin

Once again, the day did not start well for McCain-Palin. Not when the quote of the day was this:

"If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself."

And it was written by a conservative Republican woman columnist, who called Palin so obviously unqualified that she should step down for the good of the country.

Not when McCain's rush to Washington to fix the economic crisis resulted in stories like this one about Thursday from the AP: By midnight, it was hard to tell who had suffered a worse evening, Bush or McCain. McCain, eager to shore up his image as a leader who rises above partisanship, was undercut by a fierce political squabble within his own party's ranks.

Friday, with the process to find a solution struggling to get back on track but with no deal yet, McCain reversed himself on not participating in the first debate until there was one, and suddenly flew down to Ole Miss, accompanied by what a pool reporter called "general confusion," seeming to confirm the view of an ex-advisor to McCain: "It just proves his campaign is governed by tactics and not ideology," said Republican consultant Craig Shirley, who advised McCain earlier in this cycle. "In the end, he blinked and Obama did not. The 'steady hand in a storm' argument looks now to more favor Obama, not McCain." Shirley added, "My guess is that plasma units are rushing to the McCain campaign as we speak to replace the blood flowing there from the fights among the staff." A further confirmation of staff chaos was the appearance of a web ad declaring McCain the clear winner of the debate--hours before the debate started.

Then the debate. While the debate itself got good reviews, the consensus from pundits and especially from the first polls and focus groups was that Obama won it. Particularly interesting, the undecideds in a CBS poll (40% said Obama won, 22% McCain, 38% a draw) were remarkably in tune with a focus group of undecideds in St. Louis, run by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg ( 38% Obama, 27% McCain, 36% a draw.)

But this focus group also measured favorability before and after the debate. McCain's went up by 9 points, but Obama's went up by 39 points, to give him a 69%-62 total edge. This suggests that Obama may have gotten the "Reagan Effect" (I just made that up) that's part of the mythology of the 1980 election: Carter was slightly ahead until the debate and Reagan won by a landslide. The myth is that people were ready for change but unsure about Reagan, and the debate gave them enough confidence in him that they voted for change.

In another focus group (Media Curves), the Dems and GOPers went overwhelmingly for their candidate but the Independents gave the debate to Obama by 61-39, and they also gave him the win on every individual segment of the debate. So while Tweety and Pat Buchanan bloviated on their boxing metaphors, it seems that for the indies, Obama won every round.

Another important data point: in the CNN poll, Obama won among voters 50 and older. This is not only very important (because this is supposedly McCain country) but because this is a generational change, which is how the NYTimes is characterizing the difference in this debate. Put these two constituencies together--older voters and Independents-- and you have the makings of a sharp ascent to a landslide.

(The MSNBC web poll shows predictable results--Obama by like 80%-- but the comments are entertaining.) But the internals of the CNN poll are enough to make me weep with joy: Obama won on intelligence, likeability, sincerity, expressing himself more clearly, all by double digits. Obama won on being a strong leader by 4 points--and on being more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you--by 30 points! McCain won on spending more time attacking his opponent. McCain also won on terrorism by just 4 points, but Obama won on Iraq, the economy, the current financial crisis.

Nate Silver at has an interesting perspective on why these first polls show Obama winning, when some pundits and other observers thought it was more of a toss-up. He adds a note about the internals of the CBS poll, which showed that on their "your needs and problems" Obama went from a plus 18 before the debate to a plus 56 after, and on "prepared to be president" he went from -9 to plus 21. So did Obama just seal the deal? Stay tuned.

There was much talk about McCain's demeanor, which was not as surly, sullen, disengaged and strange as he is capable of. But a lot of talk about his defensive posture, and particularly his refusal to look Barack Obama in the eye, or even look at him at all, which was especially glaring in the parts of the debate when they were supposed to engage each other.

A lot of reasons were suggested. I've got two more I haven't heard anyone say. The first is a little technical--McCain can get this weird, animal caught in a trap look in his eyes when he's confronted (he did it on The View, for example), and he may have been told to avoid that at all costs, by not looking at Obama at all.

But the primary one which is implied in some of the comments people made but not yet said--yet I'm guessing it is the paramount one among African American viewers--is that McCain is not comfortable with people of color. He has shown on every occasion he is on stage even briefly with Obama that he does not want Obama--a guy who likes to touch people, long handshakes, pat on the back, a brief hug--to touch him or to even look at him.

So my conclusion: for me, Obama showed what I know him to be: intelligent, knowledgeable, compassionate, presidential. Within the debate's time constraints, he defended himself very well, and drew distinctions with McCain very well. I could have said as much about John Kerry four years ago, and probably did. Kerry demolished the sitting president, GW Bush in their first debate. He won all three debates. But he either lost the election, or didn't win it by the kind of margin that it couldn't be stolen.

But this time, if the Reagan Effect is in play, this could be different. Friday also saw polls showing Obama going ahead in Virginia and New Hampshire, widening his lead in Michigan and maintaining it in PA, while surging in at least one of the daily tracking polls. This debate is not going to slow that momentum. The question is, by the time polls are taken that account for debate reaction, whether that momentum increases. A lot.

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