by Frank Schnittger
Thu Oct 16th, 2008 at 02:26:55 AM EST
I'm beginning to feel I'm outstaying my welcome here on ET with all these US Presidential race diaries, but at least you have the consolation of knowing that this will be the last one - on the debates at least. You'd want to be a real politics junkie to watch these things in the middle of the night, but I am fascinated by the politics of persuasion and how these things are played out in the media.
For those who just want the bare facts these are as follows:
- The pundits on CNN thought this was McCain's strongest performance and thought he won the first half hour at least. They thought McCain showed real passion whilst Obama was flat and professorial.
- They began to temper their views somewhat when the results of their own focus group (of undecided voters) and viewer survey came in which both gave the debate to Obama by clear margins.
- The CBS and Media Curves viewer surveys came up with similar findings.
- Conclusion: There is nothing in the debate which will significantly alter the existing trend of a gradual movement of undecideds to Obama.
However I believe there is something much deeper going on here, something which cannot be captured in a few headline phrases. If you really want to know you're going to have to follow me below the fold...
Thanks for coming!
First, for the numbers junkies, here are the survey results:
1. CNN (all viewers)
Who won the debate? - Obama 58, McCain 31
Favourable rating before/After debate? - Obama 63/66, McCain 51/49
Who would do the better a better job on the economy? - Obama 59, McCain 24.
Who would do the better a better job on taxes? - Obama 56, McCain 41.
Who would do the better a better job on health care? - Obama 62, McCain 31.
Who expressed his views more clearly? - Obama 66, McCain 25.
Poll: Debate watchers say Obama wins - CNN.com
By 23 points, those polled said Obama was the stronger leader during the debate. By 48 points, they said Obama was more likeable. Watch entire debate: Part 1 » | Part 2 » | Part 3 »
McCain won in two categories. Eighty percent of debate watchers polled said McCain spent more time attacking his opponent, with seven percent saying Obama was more on the attack. Fifty-four percent said McCain seemed more like a typical politician during the debate, with 35 percent saying Obama acted more like a typical politician.
"Independents tend to prefer debates that are dominated by substance and light on discussion of personal characteristics," said Keating Holland, CNN polling director. "The perception that McCain attacked Obama gave red meat to GOP partisans, but it probably didn't help McCain with independents." "There was a notable gender gap as well," Holland said. "Women thought Obama won the debate by a 62 percent to 28 percent margin. Among men, Obama's lead was narrower, 54 percent to 35 percent in Obama's favor."
During the debate, McCain demanded to know the full extent of Obama's relationship with William Ayers, a 1960s radical. But the poll suggests that line of attack may not resonate with Americans. Fifty-one percent of debate watchers said Obama's connection to Ayers didn't matter at all to them, with 23 percent saying it mattered a great deal.
(n = 620, MoE =
/-4%, sample 40% Dem, 30% Rep - roughly in line with general population). 638. Uncommitted voters are those who don't yet know who they will vote for, or who have chosen a candidate but may still change their minds)
15 members of CNN's focus group of uncommitted voters thought Obama had won, to 10 for McCain. 3 stated they had decided to vote for Obama in consequence, none for McCain.
2. CBS (Uncommitted voters)
Who won the debate - Obama 53, McCain 22
Will raise taxes - Obama 64, McCain 50
Trust on health care before/after debate - Obama 61/68. McCain 27/30
Share my values before/after debate - Obama 54/64, McCain 52/55
Handle a crisis before/after debate - Obama 50/63, McCain 78/82
Manage Economy before/after debate - Obama 54/65, McCain 38/48
Understands voters' needs before/after debate - Obama 66/76, McCain 36/48
3. Media Curves
Their numbers for the second Presidential debate were as follows:
So what are the key conclusions to be drawn from these numbers?
- Firstly, because Obama already has a lead in the polls, the CNN poll of all viewers may, to a certain extent, reflect the pre-existing predispositions of the viewers. This does not, however, fully explain the almost 2:1 margin in the poll. The debate itself seems to have had only very slight effects on overall voter perceptions of Obama (positive), and McCain (negative) which are within the MoE of the poll. However Obama won decisively on every other metric in the poll including all the key issuues, clarity, leadership, and likeability. (There doesn't appear to be much evidence of racism in this and similar polls I have seen).
- In is doubtful whether much significance can be attached to the numeric findings of the CNN focus groups perceptions. Focus groups are more useful for qualitative rather than quantitative data collection. The two key finding here seemed to be that the focus group did not like negative attacks and women were more favourably disposed to Obama than men.
- However the CBS poll of uncommitted voters is much more interesting and important. Firstly, because uncommitted voters are the key target for both the campaigns, and secondly because Obama won the debate by a much wider margin in their eyes. Obama's positives increased much more during the debate than McCain's.
- This result is reinforced by the MediaCurves findings which also finds Obama winning decisively among undecideds - even more so in the third debate rather than the second.
So what's my take on all of this? Before the debate I wrote the following comment on Booman. Booman Tribune ~ Debate
What are the low information undecideds and persuadable leaners looking for at this stage? Not a stag fight - that's strictly for the partisans who will never change their vote. What they do want is:
Facts and logical argument are simply some of the props used to create such a sense around a candidate. Chiefly the candidate has to build a relationship with his audience - undecided or persuadable voters - such that they feel he understands them and has their best interests at heart. A lot of this is done through body language, eye contact, picking up familar themes, refrains, smiling, warmth, and an aura of awareness, smartness, and confidence.
- Reassurance - that their next POTUS will have a cool head, good analytical skills, and good grasp of the issues
- Warmth - a sense that their next POTUS has some degree of empathy and understanding of the fears, feelings, and concerns
- Safety - that their next POTUS will "take on the enemy" if they have to
- Confidence - that their next POTUS has the fitness/stamina/health/poise/priorities/focus required to lead the USA through a really rough patch
- Unity - that their next POTUS is capable of uniting the many fractious competing powers into a coherent national consensus
- Pride - that their next POTUS will represent them well on the world stage in an era where the US is disconcertingly dependent on the good will/cooperation of others
- Judgment - that their next POTUS has similar values, cultural beliefs, experiences to themselves
The change Obama is asking people to believe in is embodied in his being. Build a relationship of trust with that and he wins. McCain is simply a prop to assist in the development of this process - he speaks to peoples fears and insecurities. His personalised attacks on Obama actually reflect his own lack of self-confidence. Its like saying - "I don't have the answers but this guy is no better than me"
The worse McCain behaves, the easier it becomes for Obama to present himself as the epitome of calm, Presidential, reassurance. If McCain plays the attack dog he is only playing to Obama's strength.
The problem for McCain is that that is the role he has assumed in the campaign so far, and not to do so during the debate risks disheartening his own supporters who badly need their anger ventilated and their confidence restored. However in giving in to their needs he cedes the middle ground and the game is over. The media want a bunfight and will mark him down if he doesn't deliver.
Obama's great strength is that he doesn't have to appease his partisan base. He is under no pressure to try to demolish McCain, he doesn't have to. He can be respectful, even kind to McCain, and it doesn't damage his core vote -whilst reassuring all the persuadable's out there that this is a guy who can be trusted to deal sensitively with their fears - fears which, at some level, McCain has come to embody in this campaign.
McCain embodies the dark side of the fears and anxieties of an aging generation who are losing control and who need reassurance that they will not be forgotten in the new order. Obama represents their brighter, more optimistic, and more hopeful side, He just needs to reassure them that he understands their needs.
Having painted Obama as a black, Muslim, terrorist loving appeaser, the McCain campaign and its partisans has given Obama a relatively low bar to clear. It is not hard for Obama to exceed those fears and expectations. He doesn't even have to win the argument.
And that is more or less what I believe actually happened. Obama didn't win the argument, he barely tried. (I believe an impartial listener on radio might well have given the debate to McCain). Obama played defense to McCain's attacks and didn't use any of the obvious lines of counter attack suggested by his partisans. He rose above the fray, saying he was happy to take such attacks for the next 3 weeks, but that what the American people really needed was to know how they were going to get out of the current economic mess over the next few years.
Whenever McCain attacked, his ratings by the focus group collapsed. Independent/uncommitted voters simply aren't interested in partisan jousting, they won't solutions to their problems. By speaking (direct to camera) to their problems, Obama won them over.
An an intellectual level it must really have pained Obama to allow McCain get away with all his crap. But the debate wasn't about intellect, it was about building a relationship with the viewers. Obama smiled when McCain attacked. McCain scowled, jutted his tongue, rolled his eyes and looked askance. He sometimes gave a weak nervous forced smile amd rarely talked to the camera - to the American people. He was talking to Obama, trying to beat him down, and yet he never once used the word "experience" something which had been the centrepiece of his campaign before he picked Palin.
In another comment on Booman prior to the debate I wrote:Booman Tribune ~ Debate
A lot depends on the moderator - what questions he asks, and how much time he gives respondents to go into details. I hope he asks relatively few questions and probes for more detail in the responses. Previous debates have been a mile wide and an inch deep with moderators having too much ground to cover. We never got beyond prepared talking points.
But what happens if, say, he devotes half an hour to Ayres, Troopergate, Alaskan Independence Party, William Timmons, Randy Sheunemann, Rick Davis, and the plethora of dodgy lobbyists on McCain's team - what happens if they get beyond the prepared talking points and have to think on their feet as their talking points are challenged and undermined? Then we could have a real argument and see how both perform under pressure.
Obama has been very clever - baiting McCain on Ayres, and calling him erratic. This makes it more difficult for McCain to come up with a new hail mary proposal. The strategy is - think what your opponent shouldn't do and try to goad him into it. Make it difficult for him to do what he wants to do. This debate will probably be a snooze for policy wonks and party partisans. But it will be an interesting game of chess for aficionados of the psychology of persuasion.
McCain wasted perhaps 30 minutes on his attacks on Ayres. It was an argument he couldn't win, and it was where he lost his uncommitted audience. His partisans might have been pleased (Palin herself urged him to raise Ayres just hours previous to the debate), but the focus group dials went down and McCain became the grumpy grandpa who never seems to get the message: Uncommitted Americans are frightened of what the future might bring. They need confidence and reassurance that the next POTUS has a plan to get them out of this mess. Nothing turns them off more than the incestuous partisanship they associate with Washington. They have just found someone who is focused on their needs, and not his own. And it isn't McCain.