How Obama Won the First Debate: What Americans Saw That the Pundits Didn’t

The early polls for the presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama are in, and the results are clear. Obama won the debate over McCain:
• CNN: Round 1 in debates goes to Obama, poll say: 51% of those polled thought Obama did the better job in Friday night’s debate, while 38% said John McCain did better.
• CBS Poll: Obama Boosted Most By Debate: In a survey of almost 500 uncommitted voters, 40% say Obama won; 38% says it was a tie; 22% say McCain won.
• Frank Luntz (Fox/RNC Pollster) Debate Focus Group Favors…Obama! The focus group consisted of undecided voters, half of whom voted for either Bush or Kerry in 2004. The majority said that Obama won.
• A Time magazine focus group of undecided voters thought Obama won the debate. 38% said Obama won, 27% said McCain won, and 36% said it was a tie.

Yet, many of the pundits felt than McCain was victor. Even on the progressive/pro-Democrat DailyKos.com site, a lot of folks felt that Obama did not do well.

What did the American public see that the pundits and even the liberal die-hards did not? I think it’s a combination of the following.

It’s the economy, stupid.

First, understand this: going into the debate, a CBS poll of registered voters indicated that almost half of Americans believed Obama wanted to raise their taxes, while only one-third of them believed that McCain would do so. But in fact, the Obama plan would cut or freeze taxes for 95% of American families. So if Obama could simply educate people about the facts of his tax plan, that would be a big win for him.

Obama guaranteed himself of no less than a tie by talking up his tax plan right out of the box. In answer to the second debate question, he said that McCain’s plan will provide for $300 billion of tax cuts for the rich or businesses. And he further stated that his plan would provide provide a tax cut or freeze for people making under $250,000.

People got it: Obama is out to help the middle class; McCain is out to give tax breaks to the rich (including, by inference, wealthy Wall Street executives). That probably didn’t resonate with the punditrocacy, who either knew the true details of the Obama tax plan or didn’t care about those details. But for “ordinary” Americans, it made all the difference in the world.

People Get It About Iraq.

I myself don’t think Obama did a god job of countering McCain’s filibuster about the surge. I think that for every second that McCain talked about the surge, Obama should have talked twice as long about how the Iraq War was the biggest foreign policy mistake in American history, a $500 billion blunder that is bleeding our country dry.

But at the Lutz focus group, the strongest reaction the entire night came when Obama said McCain was wrong on the war, WMD, etc, etc. View this video clip to see for yourself.

Again: the people get it. They recognize that the Iraq War was a huge mistake. And all of McCain’s verbal gobbledygook on the surge is not going to erase that from people’s minds.

Obama Agreed Too Much? SO WHAT!?!

This is the clearest case of the pundits getting it all wrong. Chris Matthews of MSNBC threw a hissy fit that Obama “agreed so much with McCain.”

Can there be a sillier “issue” than this? Think about this people: if Obama agrees with McCain on certain things, then that also means McCain agrees with Obama on the same things… how is that a problem for Obama?

Americans don’t care about where the candidates agree; they care about where they disagree. Obama did the viewers a service: by not wasting time on false or petty disagreements, it was easier for viewers to see what the actual issues are between the candidates.

And even more, it may have helped Obama in an unanticipated way. Many people who saw the debate observed that McCain was condescending and sarcastic. That feeling was no doubt heightened by Obama’s willingness to voice agreement when it was appropriate to do so.

In other words: Obama showed gravitas; McCain showed hubris. As noted by Time in its write-up on their debate focus group of undecideds,

The audience did not like it when McCain went after Obama for being “naïve” or used his oft-repeated “what Senator Obama doesn’t understand” line. When the two clashed directly in the second half of the debate, with Obama repeatedly protesting McCain’s characterization of his statements or positions, the voter dials went down. Voters appear to have judged McCain too negative in those encounters and Obama more favorably.

That’s why I have to laugh at this post-debate McCain campaign commercial that says “McCain is Right” because Obama agreed with him several times during the debate. I guarantee, that will not resonate as much as this ad from Obama, titled the “Zero” ad, which observed that during the 90 minute debate, McCain never once used the words “middle class.”

These ads show the ongoing strategy of the two campaigns. The McCain campaign is trying to make this an election about personality and character; the Obama campaign is making this a campaign about issues, particularly the economy.

To the McCain folks, I say: good luck with that. Their problem is, McCain is accumulating a lot of baggage concering his own character:
• The press is taking the McCain campaign to task for its false and misleading campaign ads.
• In the Luntz/Fox focus group that was mentioned earlier, almost all felt that McCain’s faux campaign suspension earlier in the week was a political stunt and not a principled stand.
• Most voters think McCain chose Palin as his running mate to help him win in November, not because she is well-qualified for the job.

A theme is emerging: McCain is a “bad character” who will say or do anything to get elected. McCain’s dismissive and condescending attitude in the first debate certainly didn’t do much to make people feel better about him. Isn’t it ironic? In his attempt to win based on personality, McCain is making himself disreputable to the voters.

SO: was the debate a big win for Obama? No. But Obama had the lead in the polls before the debate, so even a so-so performance is good for him. Perhaps the McCain campaign can take solace in the fact that the pundits gave him a thumbs-up for his debate performance. But I think the Obama campaign is more than happy to get a similar gesture from the American public.


Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski seem to have it figured out:

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3 thoughts on “How Obama Won the First Debate: What Americans Saw That the Pundits Didn’t

  1. The fundamental dynamic of what happened in that debate was an improvement in Obama’s weak areas. Obama (and the Democrats) are viewed as more likely to help the average american with the economy. Nothing changed there. Obama probably even improved on that. Obama’s talk about a middle class tax cut did two things. First it relieved them. Second it exposed the battleground to the “big lie” McCain has been telling because McCain did not respond to it but defended the “Bush type” approach to tax matters.

    On foreign policy and terrorism the situation is different. McCain is viewed as more capable and Obama is viewed as inexperienced and more of a “risk”. McCain tried to leave the debate with that intact. He even tried hard to reinfroce it. However, Obama fared well enough in this area to allay fears. Even if McCain is still viewed as a potentially stronger commander in chief, which he probably would get against any candidate in the field of both parties this year, Obama presented himself as a safe, reasoned, capable and strong leader. In the end that’s a big win for Obama because his commander in chief needle will move up. ANd it’s tht measure (along with the tax lie) that is holding him back from a more decisive lead.

    What you will see is that Obama passed a treshold test for Commander in Chief and his poll numbers will rise. McCain already had that CIC assurance but reinforced the fears about his approach to the economy being the same (or too similar to) as Bush’s.

    McCain’s camp realized this was a fault line in the debate. That’s why JM kept calling Obama naive, dangerous, and saying he “does not understand”. What the people saw was quite different than that. This was in fact aided by Obama’ agreeing with what McCain said at times. Obama is not dumb enough to take a position that Iran getting the bomb is not a problem. GEEESSSH.

    While perhaps not as hawkish and “our way or the highway” certain on a few elements in the foreign policy discussion, (approaches by the way that Obama framed as ineffective) Obama passed the CIC test as Presidential and a safe, capable choice. For some undecided voters perhaps even a better choice due to temperment and obvious intelligence. But minimally, Obama is not the risk that they were predisposed to view him as. He can indeed take the 3 am call.

    The more McCain tried to force people into not beleiving their own eyes and ears the more McCain lost credibility and looked like a “talking points” campaigner rather than a debater. This was reinforced by his inability to even look at Obama when attacking as if launching attacks from the high altitude position of a bomber pilot that need not face down his target.

    Obama accomplished the commander in chief threshold whereas McCain failed the “too much like Bush” test. Mcain looked nasty too which will not help.

    Obama reduced fears that he is not up to the commander in chief job. McCain let remain fears that he is not up to the ecomonic task of helping the average American succeed.

    I’d add that McCain attacks on Obama came with the lack of eye contact and people pick that up both consciously or with awareness. This made him look alternately weak, bullyish, or even embarrsed by some of the attacks. Keep in mind that in battle ground states each candidate had strong attack memes going. The debate enforced Obama’s. Too much like Bush…out of touch..whereas I am for you. It did not enforce McCain’s (vacuous Paris Hilton, naive, tax raiser). THe battleground folks had to wonder why they are getting one story in ads and another in a debate from McCain. (especially on taxes) They are getting the same story from Obama in the ads and the debate.

    The coming polls will tell this tale nationally and especially in battlegorund states in my opinion.

  2. {The more McCain tried to force people into not beleiving their own eyes and ears the more McCain lost credibility and looked like a “talking points” campaigner rather than a debater. This was reinforced by his inability to even look at Obama when attacking as if launching attacks from the high altitude position of a bomber pilot that need not face down his target. }

    There’s no doubt, McCain will need a serious sit-down with his debate coaches after this is over.

    Somebody needs to tell him, congeniality does have its rewards.

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