by Frank Schnittger
Wed Oct 8th, 2008 at 01:05:14 AM EST
Obama won the second debate in Tennessee last night even though it was in McCain's favoured town hall format. Post-debate polls said that Obama won the debate by a 54 to 30% margin (CNN) whilst a CBS poll of uncommitted voters gave Obama the win by a 40% to 25% margin. Obama also improved his favour/unfavourable rating from 60/38 to 64/34 whilst McCain's rating remained unchanged at 51/46.
The differences between the candidates were not so much partisan as generational. McCain looked every year of his age as he wandered around the stage (often in the background as Obama spoke) whilst Obama's youth, energy, focus and poise seemed to embody the future. Once again McCain came across as the somewhat curmudgeonly old grandpa who has seen it all, done it all, knows it all, and is not slow to tell you all about it ad nauseum. "My friends, I know how to do this" seems to be his mantra - with the clear implication that Obama, Bush, the Republican Leadership, and all Democrats don't have his experience, wisdom, and knowledge. His somewhat condescending attitude towards Obama once again came across in a reference to Obama as "that one" and in a refusal to shake hands afterwards.
This time Obama was a lot less deferential, made no mention of McCain's experience or service, and was much quicker to rebut any charges that McCain made. McCain spent a lot of time attacking Obama, and every time he did so the graphic representation of the focus groups reactions turned sharply downward. This group was looking for positive proposals rather than negative criticisms of the other side's character, experience, judgment or proposals. It makes you wonder about the effectiveness of negative advertising on uncommitted voters.
I won't into the specifics of what the candidates actually said because the format didn't really allow for a clear exposition of policy. What you get are sound bites with heavy emphasis on key words like "middle class", "tax cuts", "jobs", "home owners", "deregulation", "the surge is working", "General Petraeus", "terrorism", "energy independence", "affordable health care" etc. each of which has been carefully researched with focus groups to gauge their reactions.
It is doubtful if the average voter can distinguish much between the actual proposals of the protagonists. What they are looking for is whether thy can identify with how a candidate portrays their concerns and whether that candidate inspires confidence in their ability to represent their concerns in the White House..
CBS Poll: Uncommitted Voters Say Obama Won Debate - Horserace
After the debate, 68 percent of uncommitted voters said that they think Obama will make the right decisions on the economy, compared to 55 percent who said that before the debate. Fewer thought McCain would do so - 48 percent after the debate, and 41 percent before.
Before the debate, 59 percent thought Obama understands voters' needs and problems; that rose to 80 percent after the debate. For McCain, 33 percent felt he understands voters' needs before the debate, and 44 percent thought so afterwards.
There is some good news for McCain, who still dominates Obama when it comes to perceptions of readiness to be president. Before the debate, 42 percent thought Obama was prepared for the job, and that percentage rose to 58 percent after the debate. But 77 percent felt McCain was prepared for the job before the debate, and 83 percent thought so afterwards.
Before the debate, 51 percent thought Obama would bring real change; afterwards, 63 percent thought that. For McCain, just 23 percent thought he would bring real change before the debate, while 38 percent thought so afterwards.
Fifty-seven percent thought McCain answered the questions that were asked, and an identical amount though Obama did.
Seventy-two percent of uncommitted voters remained uncommitted after the debate. Fifteen percent committed to Obama, and 12 percent to McCain.
There is not much change in actual voting preferences there, but McCain needed a game changer, and he didn't get it. Even a tie would have been sufficient for Obama - as long as it didn't halt the momentum of Obama's recent gains.
President Clinton is famous for building his campaign around the slogan "It's the economy, stupid" at a time when 41% of Americans thought the economy was the no. 1 issue. Now 60% of American's think that the economy is the most important issue, and that is where Obama has 20 point leads over McCain in the CNN viewer poll. Obama also had leads of 65/28 on most likeable. 54/43 on Leadership, and 60/30 on the clarity of his answers.
There is no evidence in these numbers that race will be a major factor in this election, but David Gergen, CNN pundit, did raise the "Bradley effect" in his post debate comments - saying the polls could overestimate actual voting behaviour by as much as 6%. Other pundits disputed this thesis and said the primary polls had generally predicted actual voting behaviour quite well. (That was of course with a largely Democratic electorate, and it remains to be seen whether Republican/Independent voters are being entirely candid with pollsters)
There are other factors which may work in Obama's favour - his ground game, and the fact that pollsters base their "likely voter" models on past voter behaviour. All the evidence on the ground appears to be that Obama's ground game and the mobilisation of youth and minority voters will far exceed past elections and thus cancel out any "Bradley effect" should it exist. The race may well tighten up again before voting day, but it is difficult to see the major swing McCain requires now happening in the 4 weeks remaining. The fat lady may not be singing yet, but she is beginning to clear her throat.