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McCain Can't Catch a Break Even When He Deserves One

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The last debate between John McCain and Barack Obama was a busy night for me. First I was in charge of my firm's national poll for a major news organization, to determine the winner of the debate. Second, because of my having won a national debate championship and trained political candidates, I was asked to provide my so-called expert opinion about who "won" the debate immediately after it was over for a major, and I mean major, national newspaper. A pair of former championship debaters joined me in this task.

While I didn't think he ended as strong as he needed to, I felt that the last debate was John McCain's strongest. He had a message and was less passive than in past debates. He raised issues about Barack Obama that he had shied away from in the past, and he demonstrated his years of experience, including on the issue of trade with Colombia.

I watched the debate for an ABC television affiliate (one of the largest in the nation) and provided commentary for them as well. With me was one of the top collegiate debate coaches in the nation, who happened to be both African-American and a supporter of Obama.

When asked to declare the winner, we both said that while it was close and McCain wilted a bit toward the end, he was the winner by a hair. I reported these same observations to the reporter at the large national paper. As fate would have it, one of the other three experts the paper lined up to give an expert opinion was a nationally known debate coach -- a legend in collegiate debate -- who also is an Obama supporter. I managed to find out what she told the reporter, and her comments were very much in line with mine. OK, that's two out of three "experts" who said the debate was close and McCain did well. I don't know how the third person scored the debate.

Ironically, I was selected for this duty because I had appeared in another national publication just a week earlier criticizing McCain's performance in the Town Hall debate with Obama.

A funny thing happened to our "expert panel" story in the big national paper. Our comments never appeared, and the story never ran.

Just as amazing was the difference between our firm's poll of over 700 undecided registered national voters that we conducted after the debate ended, and other assessments of who won, including at least two other polls.

First, you need to know that it is illegal to phone homes for research purposes after 9 p.m. The debate ended after that in most time zones. So we had already dialed over 140,000 registered voters to find some 1,200 in the nation who were planning to vote, were truly undecided, planned to watch the debate and agreed to call a toll free number to take a quick survey as soon as it ended.

The debate ended a little after 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Within eight minutes, 700-plus respondents had phoned in to our survey. The survey only lasted a little over a minute. We asked whom respondents thought had won the debate, and we asked them to reconfirm their age, race, gender and political affiliation. Even with such a brief survey, we still had to "weight the poll" to national party identification, and all of the other factors that, if not applied to the data, will not provide a scientifically valid survey.

To my amazement, as I waited for our quick survey, at least one network was already releasing results showing Obama had blown McCain away in their poll. But wait. They didn't just ask who won. They asked other questions, such as who was more likeable. In other words they had a longer survey that had to take more than eight minutes for a sufficient number of respondents to reply, and yet they already had their numbers out showing the debate a blowout.

Our poll, which came in around 11:15 p.m., showed Obama the winner, but by a thin 49-46 percent margin.

I'm not going to impugn the other pollsters who had these lopsided "Obama wins" polls. But do the time calculations. Something doesn't add up.

Did anyone who saw that debate not believe that McCain at the very least finally held his own with Obama? Does anyone really believe that among truly undecided voters Obama won that debate by a 20-percent-plus margin, as some network polls showed?

I must be missing something. I guess those of us asked to judge the debate for the newspaper turned out not to be such experts. And somehow our weighted telephone poll of Americans showed a much closer debate than others showed. Then again, I don't think I'm missing anything. Get my drift?

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