by Frank Schnittger
Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 09:20:54 AM EST
Like many inveterate poll watchers, I have been keeping a close eye on sites like Real Clear Politics, Pollster.com, and fivethirtyeight.com for signs as to how the US Presidential campaign is going. The Palin Bounce really gave me the heeby-jeebies because it seemed to derail the whole Presidential campaign in the MSM and put a stop to what I had thought would be a major Obama bounce after the triumphant Democratic Convention in Denver. And had it not been for reality intruding, in the shape of the Wall Street implosion, McCain might still hold the initiative now.
I have long been of the view that Obama would have to run a near perfect campaign to overcome the conservatism, xenophobia, prejudice and and gullibility of much of "main street" America in the face of a concerted MSM and corporate campaign against any fundamental change in how the USA is run. But it couldn't get much better than this: a superb ground game, great speeches, unflappable public appearances, a reassuringly competent performance in the debate and now, seemingly the clincher: appearing bipartisan and Presidential in the bail-out crisis whilst McCain flaps about.
Obama's progress in the polls since the Palin bounce has been solid if not spectacular, indicating a close fought, but by no means assured win in November. However he seemed to hit at ceiling at about 3-5% lead in the poll averages and statistical trends, and some big swing states - such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Indiana were proving difficult nuts to crack. Until Now.
This morning Quinnipiac gave Obama leads of 8% in Florida and Ohio - two states where Obama had been consistently behind, and a whopping 15% lead in Pennsylvania - a state which up until very recently, was very marginal for Obama. Interestingly, that was a 9 points better than a poll they took just before the debate. One particularly fact free piece in Real Clear Politics No Winners or Losers even called the debate a tie, despite the fact that every poll taken afterwards showed Obama gaining ground with all demographics and on all the key questions which have surrounded his candidacy.
We shouldn't read too much into any one set of polls of course, but the trend has been solidly towards Obama now for a couple of weeks and many former McCain States have broken Obama's way by increasingly clear margins. Real Clear Politis "No toss-up States" chart now has Obama/Biden leading McCain/Palin by 348 to 190.
The bail-out fiasco is now also being increasing factored into the voting trends, with McCain losing partly because it puts the focus of the debate away from "national security" to the "economy" where McCain is most closely associated with the Bush economic disaster and the Neo-conservative deregulation meme. But McCain compounded his problems by seeking to take credit for the Bail-out negotiations, which then rebounded on him when the Bail-out deal was rejected by his own Republican Base in Congress.
Democrats are now salivating at the prospect of Biden taking on Palin in tomorrow's debate, but here I would sound a severe note of caution: Palin could actually "win" that debate in the MSM generated "popular mind". The problem is simply this: Popular debates are not about facts and figures or even great displays of knowledge and experience. They are about who comes across as the most likable and representative of how people like to see themselves - and here Palin has a clear lead in the polls. As Andrew Halcro has noted:
What it's like to debate Sarah Palin
When he faces off against Sarah Palin Thursday night, Joe Biden will have his hands full.
I should know. I've debated Governor Palin more than two dozen times. And she's a master, not of facts, figures, or insightful policy recommendations, but at the fine art of the nonanswer, the glittering generality. Against such charms there is little Senator Biden, or anyone, can do.
Unfortunately for Biden, if recent history is an indicator, experience or a grasp of the issues won't matter when it comes to debating Palin.
On April 17, 2006, Palin and I participated in a debate at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks on agriculture issues. The next day, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner published this excerpt:
"Andrew Halcro, a declared independent candidate from Anchorage, came armed with statistics on agricultural productivity. Sarah Palin, a Republican from Wasilla, said the Matanuska Valley provides a positive example for other communities interested in agriculture to study."
On April 18, 2006, Palin and I sat together in a hotel coffee shop comparing campaign trail notes. As we talked about the debates, Palin made a comment that highlights the phenomenon that Biden is up against.
"Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I'm amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, 'Does any of this really matter?' " Palin said.
While policy wonks such as Biden might cringe, it seemed to me that Palin was simply vocalizing her strength without realizing it. During the campaign, Palin's knowledge on public policy issues never matured - because it didn't have to. Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy.
Palin is a master of the nonanswer. She can turn a 60-second response to a query about her specific solutions to healthcare challenges into a folksy story about how she's met people on the campaign trail who face healthcare challenges. All without uttering a word about her public-policy solutions to healthcare challenges.
In one debate, a moderator asked the candidates to name a bill the legislature had recently passed that we didn't like. I named one. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles named one. But Sarah Palin instead used her allotted time to criticize the incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. Asked to name a bill we did like, the same pattern emerged: Palin didn't name a bill.
And when she does answer the actual question asked, she has a canny ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. For example, asked to name a major issue that had been ignored during the campaign, I discussed the health of local communities, Mr. Knowles talked about affordable healthcare, and Palin talked about ... the need to protect hunting and fishing rights.
So what does that mean for Biden? With shorter question-and-answer times and limited interaction between the two, he should simply ignore Palin in a respectful manner on the stage and answer the questions as though he were alone. Any attempt to flex his public-policy knowledge and show Palin is not ready for prime time will inevitably cast him in the role of the bully.
On the other side of the stage, if Palin is to be successful, she needs to do what she does best: fill the room with her presence and stick to the scripted sound bites.
And unfortunately, that is about all the debate format will allow. A lot will depend on whether the moderator challenges Palin's non-answers - because for Biden to do so might make him look arrogant and a bully.
There are others problems which could emerge for Obama. Democrats could be outmaneuvered on the Bail-out bill. They could end up being held responsible for a very unpopular measure. The focus of the campaign could switch back to national security if some terrorist outrage or manufactured war breaks out.
Its not over till the fat lady sings. However the count-down has begun and early voting has started in Ohio at a time when Obama has hit a new peak. Time is running out for McCain to turn this thing around, and increasing numbers of voters have already made up their minds. Opinions are hardening and will be more difficult to change in the future. Even a "bad" debate by Biden probably won't matter all that much, because when crises occur people look to experience and gravitas to provide a solution - not some newbie from Alaska who thinks that living close to Russia provides her with foreign policy experience.