Last Friday night, George W. Bush bounced back with a more warm, humorous and passionate performance in the second of three presidential debates than he displayed in the first one. But a "scientific" post-debate poll, conducted immediately afterward by ABC News, gave the nation a different -- and arguably flawed -- view of the public's reaction. That causes me to wonder whether much polling serves to create self-fulfilling outcomes.
As a former debater, I freely admit that on an argument-by-argument basis, the second Bush-Kerry square-off was probably a draw. But this time, it wasn't just the president who found himself occasionally tongue-tied. Kerry tripped up a bit on abortion, for example.
I have little doubt that Kerry trounced Bush in the first debate. I am equally confident that Bush won the second one. The main reason was the president's rediscovered warmth. Yes, that admittedly un-cerebral notion that people want a leader who comes across as natural, from-the-gut, friendly -- even funny. Bush balanced passion and aggression to depict himself as a forceful leader who can still be lighthearted and spontaneous, even in the heaviest of moments.
When Kerry lambasted Bush for -- apparently according to the president's tax returns -- being a minor investor in a timber company, the president said, "I own a timber company? That's news to me." While the audience was still laughing, Bush made another quip asking if anyone in the audience wanted to buy a little wood. On that night, in that setting -- and doubtless helped by low expectations -- Bush bettered the more polished Kerry on style alone.
Then came ABC's instant post-debate survey. The poll was released before the network's TV coverage of the debate even ended. It showed Kerry having won by three percentage points. To ABC's credit, they quickly noted that the poll had more Democratic respondents than Republican. And anchor Peter Jennings and commentator George Stephanopoulos both basically called it a tie. Stephanopoulos even went so far as to point out that the three-point differential essentially mirrored the same difference in Democrats and Republicans who were queried in the quick survey. Taking it a step further, ABC's political director Mark Halperin made overtures about a Bush bounce-back from the first debate.