Thursday, October 16, 2008

Obama v. McCain, Round III

As reported on the Trail:

Barack Obama completed a three-debate sweep on Wednesday night, at least according to snap polls by CBS News and CNN. CBS's poll of previously uncommitted voters showed Obama the overall winner, and the one who was more convincing on health care. Obama also came out on top on "sharing your values." Obama also beat John McCain in CNN's poll of debate watchers -- more Democrats than Republicans tuned in -- by a large, nearly 2 to 1 margin.

Most striking in the CNN data is the progress Obama has made from debate to debate. Fifty-one percent of debate watchers thought he won the first showdown, that ticked up to 54 percent last time and to 58 percent in the final contest. The senator from Illinois also had increasingly strong ratings as the more likable of the two presidential hopefuls, the one who expressed his views more clearly and as the "stronger leader." McCain only progressed on the question of who spent more time on the attack -- not necessarily a positive development for the GOP nominee.

The NY Times:

Wednesday night’s debate was another chance for Mr. McCain to prove that he is ready to lead this country out of its deep economic crisis. But he had one answer to almost every economic question: cut taxes and government spending. Unfortunately, what Mr. McCain means is to cut taxes for the richest Americans and, inevitably, to reduce the kinds of government services that working Americans need more than ever.

Mr. McCain also stuck to his campaign’s nasty tone. He could not let go of the “Joe the Plumber” parable, saying his opponent’s plan was “to take Joe’s money, give it to Senator Obama and let him spread the wealth around.” Mr. McCain then accused Barack Obama of engaging in the sort of “class warfare” that has, in fact, been a focus of his own campaign.

In another astonishing exchange, Mr. McCain acted as though he was the truly aggrieved party, insisting that he had repudiated all of the attacks on Mr. Obama by surrogates and “some fringe people” at rallies. He didn’t mention that his running mate, Sarah Palin, is one of the loudest attackers, and he certainly didn’t repudiate her absurd, repeated charge that Mr. Obama has been “palling around with terrorists.” Quite the opposite. Mr. McCain again raised Mr. Obama’s old and meaningless acquaintance with William Ayers, a violent, 1960s radical who served with Mr. Obama on charitable foundations. Mr. McCain ended up seeming angry and desperate.

Mr. McCain’s biggest problem is that he has no big ideas for fixing the country’s problems. His speech on the economy this week was replete with seriously bad ones, starting with cutting the already very low capital gains tax in half. That won’t rescue the economy. What it will do is dig the government further into debt while making the current tax structure that rewards the rich even more unfair.

…As for how Mr. McCain would create jobs, his big idea in Tuesday’s speech — surprise, surprise — was that “the most effective way a president can do this” is to use “tax cuts that are directed specifically to create jobs.” After the last eight years, that pinched view of government ought to sound depressingly familiar to the millions of Americans who are still waiting for that downward trickle of prosperity.
EJ Dionne:

The moment of truth in last night's debate came when Bob Schieffer asked the candidates if they would be willing to repeat, face to face, some of the personal charges they have made against each other in their ads and on the trail. At first, John McCain flinched. Instead of answering directly, he suggested, remarkably, that it was Barack Obama who was running the more negative campaign. Polls show that this is certainly not the impression of voters. They see McCain as the negative guy.

But eventually McCain launched the attack everyone was waiting for, referring to Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers, the '60s radical with whom Obama served on a Chicago education board that also included Republican members. Obama calmly noted that his relationship with Ayers was limited and that Ayers would play no role in an Obama administration.

But McCain was wound up, and before he was done, he made the astonishing claim that some fraudulent voter registrations obtained by ACORN -- that's the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- constituted "one of the greatest frauds in voter history" and were "maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." Gosh, I didn't know our democratic fabric was so frail.

Ayers, ACORN and Joe the Plumber were the stars of McCain's desperate effort in the third and final presidential debate to revive a candidacy that has been on the skids ever since the economic crisis hit. (Joe, whose last name is Wurzelbacher and who runs a plumbing business in Ohio, confronted Obama recently at a campaign stop because he didn't like the idea that Obama would raise his taxes. He's become a hero on some conservative Web sites.)

This trio of attacks almost certainly did McCain good among those whose votes he already has: very conservative Republicans who share Joe's view that Obama is some kind of socialist. But it's unlikely that McCain helped himself much with the moderate and middle-class voters who have drifted away from him. He failed to rattle the ever-calm Obama. And it's hard to see that anything McCain said last night repaired the damage done to his campaign by the economic crisis and his own handling of it.

…What's striking about the past month is that the great American middle has shifted Obama's way. Recent polls by The Post and ABC News, Gallup, and the Pew Research Center suggest that Obama's gains since mid-September have been especially large among whites, particularly white men, and also among independents and moderates. At this crucial juncture, the contours of the 2008 contest are remarkably similar to those of the 2006 midterm elections that ended with a Democratic victory. Strikingly -- and no doubt unintentionally -- McCain echoed the Democrats' 2006 campaign theme when he said that voters want the country to move in "a new direction." That's McCain's problem.

McCain tried hard last night to paint Obama as a big-spending liberal who hangs around with radicals. But ideology may matter less to voters this year than temperament, and in this downturn, conservatism may be even more suspect than liberalism. In assailing Obama from the right, McCain may only have deepened the problems he already has.

The LA Times:

John McCain came into the third and final presidential debate needing to somehow wrestle the campaign out of Barack Obama's arms. He did not do it. There was no single moment that was likely to reverberate in the minds of American voters and change the course of an election that has moved dramatically toward Obama in the
last several weeks. But the 90-minute debate was a perfect distillation of McCain's general election campaign, with all of its inconsistent messages.

…McCain needed to focus with laser-like intensity on middle-class fears over the faltering economy, the universal concern of undecided voters. Initially, he did that. He spoke repeatedly about "Joe the Plumber" -- so repeatedly that by mid-debate Obama too was addressing the man who first surfaced this week at an Obama event to question the candidate about taxes. But soon the Republican was off-topic and into the swamp of cultural issues that voters have said are not important as their retirement savings dwindle and their homes and livelihoods are threatened.

In a race in which millions of dollars have been spent for the votes of American women, McCain managed in a two-question segment to mock laws protecting a woman's right to sue for being paid less than a man, and the notion that late-term abortions should be allowed in cases where a mother's health is threatened. "That's the extreme pro-abortion position -- quote, health," McCain said.
On Swampland, TIME's Amy Sullivan reports how undecideds were “laughing at, not with, McCain.”

In politics it is generally not considered a good sign when voters are laughing at you, not with you. And by the end of the third and last presidential debate, the undecided voters who had gathered in Denver for Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg’s focus group were “audibly snickering” at John McCain’s grimaces, eye-bulging, and repeated references to “Joe the Plumber.”

The group of 50 uncommitted voters should have at least been receptive to McCain—Republicans and Independents outnumbered Democrats in the group by almost 4 to 1, and they started the evening with much warmer responses to McCain than to his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. But by the time it was all over, so few of them had declared their support for McCain that there weren’t enough for Greenberg to separate them into a post-debate focus group. Meanwhile, the Obama supporters had to assemble in two different rooms to keep their discussion groups manageable.

Half of the voters thought that Obama “won” the debate, with 24% giving McCain the victory and 26% seeing no clear winner. As with previous debates, however, the divergent personal reactions to the candidates were most striking. And those ultimately may end up defining the campaign for McCain. He emerged from the Republican field as the candidate who was least associated with the damaged GOP brand, the one least able to be tied to George W. Bush, and he has largely maintained that image: a large plurality (40%) see McCain as a maverick, and over the course of the evening there was a 52-point shift on the question of whether McCain offered a different path than Bush.

Yet if McCain has proved resistant to the Obama campaign’s mantra that he would be “More of the Same,” the results of focus groups over the past month seem to show that he has hurt his own chances of winning the White House by misreading the emotional mood of the country. Once again, the focus group dials dove whenever McCain went on the attack, particularly when he talked about Bill Ayers and ACORN in what turned out to be the longest segment of the evening. The audience that started out giving McCain a 54/24 favorability rating (and, incidentally, liked Sarah Palin a lot more than Joe Biden, with +6 and -20 splits) ended up almost evenly divided between warm and cool feelings toward him (50/48).

Obama started off with a lower, and divided, favorability rating (42/42) that climbed to 72/22 after 90 minutes. “Boring” and “zzzzz” were popular reviews of Obama’s performance from blogosphere pundits, but apparently the people have had enough excitement watching the market plummet and are in the mood for some mellowness.

McCain’s strongest area of the night was the issue of energy independence. The dial responses were highest for his comments in that area, and McCain eliminated Obama’s 18-point advantage on the issue by the end of the debate. He also continues to hold strong advantages as the candidate most trusted to handle national security and foreign policy issues, even though the final debate was mostly focused on domestic questions. And McCain is still the candidate voters are most likely to see as a “strong leader,” although his 36-point lead on that issue shrank to 22 over the course of the evening.

One of the most significant factors in the campaign may end up being Obama’s fundraising, which he has used to run ads across the country criticizing McCain’s health care plan. The undecided voters started the evening preferring Obama’s approach 54 to 4. McCain won over an additional 14% of them in the debate while Obama’s number remained unchanged, but the 40-point gap on a key issue is still hurting the Republican candidate.

As for Obama, he continued to win over undecided voters on critical questions: Does he have what it takes to be president? A 38/50 split flipped to 56/34. Can voters trust him to make the right decisions? Obama rose from 30/50 to 48/40. Is he best equipped to handle the economic crisis? Voters split evenly between the two candidates at the start preferred Obama by 30 points by the end of the night.

Perhaps most significant was Obama’s success in reassuring voters that he understands who they are and what matters to them. He went from a 16-point to a 24-point advantage on “Is he on your side?” and made similar gains on the question of whether he would “bring the right kind of change,” from a 18 to 38-point advantage. And while the two candidates were even on the question of “who shares your values?” at the beginning of the debate, Obama held a 24-point lead by the end.
The “values” undecided voters seem to have in mind this year seem a long way from the focus on abortion and gay marriage in the 2004 campaign. Voters reacted most positively to Obama’s remarks during the segment on education that parents needed to take personal responsibility to improve their children’s learning environments—Greenberg noted that the dials went up to 80, the highest score of the night. Similarly, women reacted particularly well to his comments on abortion, but it was his suggestion that there could be common ground in supporting policies to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies that really spiked the dials in CNN’s focus group of undecided Ohio voters.

Soon enough we’ll have election results instead of focus group responses to tell us which candidate will move into the White House in January. The number of voters who remain uncommitted dwindles by the day. John McCain’s challenge in the last three weeks of the campaign is to make sure that they don’t break the way these Denver voters did. He’d better hope that Joe the Plumber has a lot of friends.
On the Fix, Chris Cillizza offers some of his initial thoughts:

"Joe the Plumber." The McCain campaign clearly saw an opening from the widely circulated You Tube clip of Obama talking to -- obviously -- a plumber named Joe. Time and again throughout the debate, McCain name-checked Joe as a stand-in for small business owners who, he argued, would be badly hurt by Obama's tax plan. McCain needed to find a way to connect on the economy and his campaign clearly believed it found it in Joe. Maybe. But, as we said in the runup to tonight's debate, McCain's problems as a messenger on the economy can't be fixed in a night. If Joe the Plumber is where he is going to go in the next 20 days, he needs to hammer on it day and night to try and change voter perceptions before Nov. 4.

Obama's Cool. Obama has learned one key lesson during the 9,000 debates in this campaign -- don't lose your cool. McCain, on several occasions, mocked Obama (laughs, smirks etc.) and interrupted him to try and correct the record. Obama largely ignored these verbal (and nonverbal) jabs, knowing that the one way he would surely lose the debate -- and jeopardize his place in the race -- was to lose his temper. Obama was steady but not spectacular tonight; come to think of it, that phrase could describe his performance in all three debates.

McCain's Scatter-Shot Approach. The key in any political campaign is to latch on to one really powerful argument against your opponent and stick to it. It's why the "celebrity" attack by McCain on Obama worked earlier this summer; the McCain came up with it and repeated it endlessly. Tonight, McCain couldn't seem to decide which line of attack he wanted to focus on. He did break the Ayers seal but also threw in ACORN, negotiating with rogue leaders, taxes, and a lack of international experience among other issues. For the average viewers, that scatter-shot approach makes it VERY hard to know what exactly to focus on in McCain's case against Obama.

Abortion, Really? Roughly ten minutes -- one-ninth -- of the debate was focused on abortion. The truth is that while many people feel passionately on both sides of the issue, their minds are almost completely made up. McCain may have stayed on abortion longer than many GOP strategists would have liked in hopes of courting those white, working class voters who tend to be conservative on social issues but it's hard to imagine many undecided voters making up their minds based on the candidates' stance on abortion.

The "Split Screen Smirk/Smile." Both Obama and McCain seemed to have decided that the best way to nonverbally dismiss their opponent's attacks was to smile. It didn't work for either candidate. McCain's facial expressions seemed contrived, Obama's vaguely arrogant. Just a steady look into the camera will do nicely. Did no one learn from Al Gore's debate sighs in 2000?

Schieffer Shines. Anyone who has ever met Bob Schieffer (and The Fix has had the honor -- albeit just once) knows that he is the ultimate class act -- and a great journalist to boot. Man, did he show it tonight. Schieffer kept the debate moving, asked probing questions and wasn't afraid to interrupt one of the candidates when they veered wildly off topic. Well done.

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