There were really only two audiences for this debate – the people who know they are voting for McCain or Obama, and the people who haven’t decided yet. The former are essentially totally unmovable in their opinion, however much they may pretend to be persuadable (and I am unabashedly in this cohort). The second, are probably “low information” voters who simply haven’t had time to think about the election much and are looking to form a gut feeling about the candidates.
Let me state up front that I am firmly of the opinion that the average voter is a rational actor. I don’t think people are dumb or racist or gullible, as a rule. I do however subscribe to the GIGO principle – garbage in, garbage out – which means that a perfectly rational voter will come to an irrational decision if fed utter nonsense to digest. The thought process itself, not the end product, is the rational part.
This is why the McCain campaign is so hell-bent on propagating nonsense about Palin’s qualifications (“I can see Russia from my house!”), outright smearing of Obama (“he’s a pedophile!”), and other chicanery (“I will single-handedly save the nation by going to Washington and injecting presidential politics into solemn deliberations!”). In the software world this is referred to as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. In other words, the McCain strategy is to swamp the low-info, undecided voter with an avalanche of garbage and hope that some of it sticks long enough to taint their conclusions about Obama’s fitness to lead.
In a nutshell, then, McCain’s objective in this debate was to avoid the issues and disseminate more FUD about Obama. Obama’s objective was to stand firm and demonstrate that he belonged on the stage. I think both of them achieved their goals, but in so doing made for a very boring debate for all of us in the first group, for whom this debate was not intended.
Overall, if I were to criticize Obama I’d say that his answers were too comprehensive. He needs to boil down his ideas more succinctly. He tended to try and be comprehensive, linking everything and drawing a great web of connections, relating everything to everything else so as to assert his knowledge on everything in a reassuring way. But in so doing we sort of lost sight of the small picture. Obama needs to factoid-ify his basic positions on the issues (Afghanistan – the real front of the war on terror. Iraq – expensive boondoggle that made us less safe. Economy – a mess because of Republican rule and military spending. etc.) Not because I think the low-info voter is a fool, but rather because anything more complex can be more easily FUDded into torturous meanings and picked apart by McCain’s operation. What the low-info voter will see is not Obama’s two full minutes of response to a question, but a summary of the summary. The more simplistic he can be in conveying his ideas, the more fidelity with which he can get them across.
I know that CBS and CNN had some encouraging polls that suggest the independent voters who sat through the debate were generally pro-Obama. But for every focus group the networks setup, there are millions more voters who won’t know anything of the debate beyond tomorrow’s headlines and the capsule summary on the evening news. That summary will of course include (for “balance”) the McCain spin, and it’s hard to see how any nuance in Obama’s answers will be preserved.
Fundamentally, the partisan supporters (myself included) will assume they were unbiased but still in favor of their man. But we don’t count. The key is the swingy middle, and where they stand, we won’t really know until the next debate (if that even happens – McCain’s camp is reported to be in full-panic mode about Palin’s disastrous media appearances, especially the Katie Couric interviews, which make the Tina Fey portrayal on Saturday Night Live seem pretty tame).
Sure, Obama won. I’m an Obama guy after all. But who cares what i think? Or what RedState thinks?
Anyway, according to web ads that the McCain campaign was running this afternoon, McCain won the debate even before it took place. Clearly, further debates are redundant. John McCain is altering the deal.. pray he doesn’t alter it any further.
(Why, yes, that is a picture of Tina Fey up there. No, it’s not really relevant to this post at all. Unless of course McCain dumps Palin and runs the McCain-Fey ticket, in which case I’m so aboard.)