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Obama-McCain Third Debate Analysis

The final presidential debate of the 2008 campaign season took place last night at Hofstra University in New York. Given Obama's favorable position in the polls and his growing momentum, his main goal was to hold his own and not make any fatal mistakes. The onus was on McCain to have what pundits call a "game-changing moment." While I believe these "moments" are exaggerated in terms of their frequency and magnitude, it cannot be denied that the stakes coming into this debate were far higher for McCain than they were for Obama.

This debate represented McCain's last chance to present his case to voters before an audience of tens of millions of voters. It also represented McCain's last chance to draw blood by catching Obama off guard or exposing an Obama vulnerability in real time. And of course, this debate also provided McCain with his last chance to look more presidential than Obama on the same stage. So rather than analyze this debate in terms of a scorecard or best and worst moments, it is more prudent to analyze this debate in terms of McCain's ability to take advantage of this last best opportunity.

Unfortunately for McCain, he did not accomplish what he needed to in order to reset the race. He may have slowed Obama's momentum a bit, but likely did not change the overall dynamics of the race. Obama is still the frontrunner, and McCain is running out of time.

McCain had two major problems: 1) temperament, and 2) message consistency. Regarding his temperament, throughout the debate, McCain looked irritated, frustrated, and unhappy to be on stage. During the split screens, Obama looked composed and mature while McCain looked as if he could barely control his anger. There was a lot of eye-rolling, sighing, pouting, and fidgeting on the part of McCain that likely did not make undecided voters feel comfortable. During these times of economic anxiety and fear, voters are probably more comforted by reassurance and composure than by anger. As a result, Obama again looked like the mature grown-up on stage.

Message consistency was perhaps an even worse problem for McCain simply because the consistency wasn't there. I wrote about the McCain campaign's poor message discipline earlier this week, and now the consequences of failing to rectify this problem could be observed by all. McCain had a lot of attack lines, but the way he delivered them made it sound like he was just trying to launch whatever he could at Obama to see what would stick. McCain attacked Obama on his connections to ACORN, William Ayers, raising taxes, negative campaign ads, and poor form at campaign events. There was no central or overriding narrative, however, that captured why voters should disqualify Obama and throw their support to McCain instead.

The worst example of this occurred when the debate focused on Congressman John Lewis, who likened the rhetoric and stoking of anger at Sarah Palin's campaign rallies to that of former segregationist George Wallace. After it looked like both candidates had said what they wanted or needed to say about the topic, McCain kept going and somehow went from talking about Congressman Lewis to talking about taxes. In addition to devoting far too much time and emotional energy to an issue that ranks pretty low with most voters, McCain's complaints were incoherent and allowed Obama to take the high road by trying to pivot back to voters who are more interested about their homes and pocketbooks than about what one Washington figure said about another.

There's also another unintended consequence of McCain's poor message discipline. One thing he did keep repeating last night was "Joe the Plumber." McCain did this to show that he cared about average people and small business owners. The problem with this was that he repeated it so much that it lost its potency and began to sound more like pandering or a gimmick. And even worse, the news stations are giving "Joe the Plumber" a lot of airtime today because he's the unintended star of the debate. This has to infuriate the McCain campaign because two minutes of talking about "Joe the Plumber" on CNN is two minutes of NOT talking about "McCain the Tax Cutter." So McCain essentially stepped on his own message by allowing someone else to overshadow it.

McCain also did himself no favors by not firmly stating that he would appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court. Surely his conservative base didn't like that. Of course, he may have been trying to appeal to moderate or independent voters, but he destroyed his chances with them when he mocked the "health of the mother" aspect to abortion rights. He tried to portray Obama as an extremist on the issue while displaying a bit of insensitivity to women whose decision to get an abortion rests on their own health concerns. Look for women's groups to slam McCain over this in the coming days.

Perhaps the final indictment against McCain came in his defense of Sarah Palin as a competent president in the event that she needed to take over. To be fair, McCain had no choice but to defend her on the national stage. But after her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, the cementing caricature of her as vapid and illogical, and her harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail, most voters have concluded that she can't be taken seriously as a possible Commander-in-Chief.

McCain took a huge gamble by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. It certainly paid off in the short term, but it has proven to be a major drag on his political fortunes in the long run. To non-Republicans, his defense of what they consider an obviously unqualified running mate may have made them feel even less comfortable about the McCain-Palin ticket because McCain's own judgment could come into question. He was defending the indefensible. To his credit, Obama stayed away from attacking her and took away any opportunity for Palin to respond with a hot zinger of her own.

I've mentioned this before, and I'll mention it again. John McCain cannot win this election with conservatives alone. McCain seemed to be talking more to his base in the debate than the moderates, independents, and Democrats he needs to create a winning coalition in the purple states. Sarah Palin has pushed a lot of these voters away from McCain, and McCain did little to win them back. Again, all the attacks about ACORN, William Ayers, and raising taxes probably pleased voters in conservative bastions like Texas, Kentucky, and Idaho, but voters in Virginia, Florida, and Colorado probably could have cared less.

The reason why McCain lost this debate is because he no longer controls his own destiny. His presidential campaign is now at the mercy of an Obama blunder, an international catastrophe, or a new video showing Barack Obama shaking hands with Osama bin Laden or using racial epithets against Whites. In other words, John McCain can no longer win this election without help from sources that are beyond his control.

The McCain campaign has about 19 days left to let its surrogates, advisers, and advertising team whittle away at Obama's lead just enough to capitalize on any lingering doubts or suspicions voters have about Obama on Election Day. There's always the prospect of another round of buyer's remorse that may cause soft Obama supporters and undecideds to give McCain a second look. But with early voting already taking place, that makes McCain's task more difficult.

Let's not kid ourselves or try to portray this race as dead even. It's not. Barack Obama is ahead of John McCain, often by considerable margins. Obama's initial path to 270 was defined as winning all of the Kerry states and flipping Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado. He is now ahead in all three and is on his way to flipping Virginia and Florida. Virginia is now much more multicultural and Democratic because of the growing Washington suburbs, and Florida is particularly hard hit by the housing and economic crisis (think of all the retirees living there). Obama also has a serious chance of winning Ohio, Missouri, and North Carolina. Missouri and North Carolina!

Here's how tough McCain's electoral math is. He could win Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Pennsylvania (a state that is now more solidly in Obama's camp) and still lose the election if Obama wins Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia. Note that Obama is ahead in all four of these states. For McCain to win, he must sweep Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. But based on current state polling, it appears that Obama has a better chance of sweeping these states than McCain does. The fact that this is even possible shows that McCain did not do what he needed to do at Hofstra last night.

4 comment(s):

Brett said...

Has this whole situation given you a bit of deja vu, Anthony? It certainly has given it to me, because I remember how throughout the summer (and earlier, in the Democratic Primary Campaign), both Democrats and Republicans were complaining and worrying about why he couldn't "close the deal". Now, apparently, he's doing it.

That said, I think Obama had one particularly good moment during the discussion of health care when he forced McCain off-balance. He carefully explained his plan, twice, and suddenly McCain seemed to have no real response, so he launched into a mix-mash of points about "share our wealth", government-run care, and so forth. It was kind of like what Palin did a couple of times in the Palin-Biden debate.

Similarly, McCain got a good hit on Obama with regards to NAFTA. Of course, I don't know how effective it actually was.

Khaki Elephant said...

There was no central or overriding narrative

And that is exactly what makes McCain a poor debater. Viewers will only take one or two major points from a debate, but for some reason McCain continues to touch on dozens of facts and issues rather than pound just one or two.

Obama has had a consistent message during every debate, "we don't need another Bush term" and he has deftly focused every issue on that point. True or not, it resonates.

Now, were you baiting me to come to Palin's defense? :-)

I would (and have) argued that Biden's performance on the campaign trail, including his Couric interview, has been far worse than Palin's. The difference is that the media has attacked Palin relentlessly while letting Joe slip by with racist comments and foreign policy gaffes which are astounding given that's supposed to be his strong point. And don't even get me started on his constitutional analysis.

In my opinion it is the Palin pick that has kept it this close. It still motivates the base and she pulls in standing-room-only throngs like Obama himself.

We don't always agree, Anthony, but this was a great post as always.

Silence Dogood said...

K. E.,

Admitted that Biden has not been under the same 'gaffe' detector lens that Palin has, but she has also gotten away with a lot too that I don't another politician might have. Paticularly as far as the troopergate thing is concerned. For another politician on a ticket this might have been an "October" surprise (minus the surprise part as the investigation has been ongoing for while), it seems like it has been quite the non-story thus far.

I am digressing though. Do you really think, objectively speaking, you really think Biden's interview was worse than Palin's? I am admitting that Biden's interview wasn't error free, and that the errors - and basically his whole interview - were largely ingnored by the press. However, I just can't see those two interviews being on an equal footing, by almost any measure.

Anthony Palmer said...


I think Democrats are so used to throwing winnable elections away that they are unsure how to react now that Obama is on the verge of running away with things. It is quite possible that Obama will choke or McCain will mount a final comeback, but it looks like Obama is surprising everyone. They said he wasn't experienced enough, didn't have enough substance, wasn't tough enough to beat the Republicans, and was too liberal. But his polling and his $150M haul are making a whole bunch of us eat humble pie.



Thanks as always for the compliment. I don't have as much time as I used to to respond to every comment I receive here, but I do read and appreciate them all. I think Palin has been under a harsher microscope than Biden simply because Biden has a much longer paper trail and more evidence of policy knowledge than Palin. Biden's not new. Obama's not new anymore. And McCain's not new. But Palin is new. And because of her lack of media access, that makes her interactions with the media that much more salient. Biden gets a pass for his policy gaffes because there are many other instances of him showing a really strong command of these issues. We don't have that with Palin. That's my explanation.



I agree that Palin has gotten away with a lot more from the media in that nobody's clamoring for her to do a Sunday morning talk show and they aren't calling her out on Troopergate and her assertion that the investigation cleared her of any wrongdoing, including ethically. One thing that has disturbed me as a journalism student is how bloggers have been lumped with the "mainstream liberal elite media." A lot of the over-the-top stories about Palin and her family originated from liberal bloggers at Daily Kos, for example, but the McCain campaign has been able to lump DK with the NBC and the Washington Post. It's very shrewd politically, but it really concerns me as a student of journalism.

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