Presidential Debates Not Yet Definitive

Posted: Sep 29, 2008 3:06 PM
Presidential Debates Not Yet Definitive

I was among the estimated 80 million who watched the entire debate last Friday evening. Who won? There was no knock-out blow as some debates have produced in the past. I watch these debates with a distinct disadvantage. I once coached debate. So I tend to look for different things than the ordinary viewer. David Yepsen, the celebrated political reporter of the Des Moines Register, declared Senator John Sidney McCain, III the winner. I would be hard-pressed to do so.

At best this debate was a draw. Senator Barack Hussein Obama reassured the public that he is cool and collected and has a basic command of the issues. On the other hand, Senator McCain succeeded in portraying Senator Obama as naïve on foreign policy. NBC watched the debate with seven undecided voters. One voter who had leaned toward Obama prior to the debate said he now leaned toward McCain. Likewise, a woman voter who had leaned toward McCain now leaned toward Obama. But all of them said they had not made up their minds and would require the next two debates before doing so. That says it all. The debate resolved nothing. There were few memorable lines.

Some observers said McCain looked angry and criticized him for not looking at Obama. I didn't see it that way. I thought McCain was forceful. Other observers suggested that Obama frequently was on the defensive. Again, I didn't see it that way. He was on offense as frequently as he was on defense, especially when he recited all of the instances where McCain was supposedly wrong. It should be noted, however, that Obama had to state that McCain was correct about an issue at least seven times, whereas McCain never conceded any ground to Obama.

Post-election surveys indicate great interest in the debate. Frank Luntz, a pollster, surveyed a group of 27 undecided voters. He said most voters leaned toward Obama at the end of the debate because they felt Obama had greater passion than did McCain. These voters felt that McCain looked tired. Again, I didn't see it that way. I thought McCain demonstrated a lot of energy.

This debate resolved almost nothing. It was supposed to be about foreign policy, but the first 40 minutes pertained to the economy and the proposed bailout of Wall Street. Since the bailout was not resolved at the time of the debate, what the candidates said about it was not definitive.

In the past, the vast majority of Americans watched the first debate and far fewer watched subsequent debates. I am not sure that will be the case this time. I think it is likely that as many voters will watch the second and third debates as watched this one precisely because so little was resolved by this debate. The Vice-Presidential debate also will be watched widely because of the great interest in Governor Sarah Heath Palin, of Alaska. People want to see how she does against the experienced Senator Joseph R. (Joe) Biden, Jr., of Delaware. However, the remaining two Presidential debates may well be decisive. Let us hope so. It is likely to be a very close election. The final debates may well clarify things.