Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Palin did not crash and burn in last night's debate, as she had in her interviews with Katie Couric. There was a lot of talk in the days leading up to the debate that if she managed to meet this low threshold, she'd be declared the winner. And yet, at least the TV pundits I had the chance to see did not say this.
Everyone acknowledged that she had performed reasonably well under enormous pressure, but that she had not necessarily done much to erase doubts among those who harbor them, since she was so clearly insistent on repeating talking points. Palin lacked the substantive knowledge of issues that led Joe Biden occasionally to get caught in thickets of Washington verbiage.
But what of the substance itself? The most interesting comment I read was by Jonathan Cohn on The New Republic's The Plank blog. He points out that the instant polls, from CBS and CNN, both showed voters scoring the debate for Biden, in numbers that nearly mirrored Obama's advantage over McCain in the same polls last Friday night.
Cohn's thoughts on why this was so may be telling:
We're used to analyzing debates based on the candidates' performance: Were they likeable? Did they make gaffes? And sometimes, surely, that's the real significance.... But for all of the outsized importance character and personality have taken on during this year's campaign, perhaps the debates will prove significant for a much simpler reason: They conveyed to the voters the philosophy and proposals that each presidential ticket endorses.... It could be coincidence. Or it could be the fact that they made the same essential arguments--and the viewers reached the same conclusions about them....
My reading of the issue polls this campaign season suggest that, in general, voters prefer the Obama approach on both sets of issues to the McCain approach. If so, maybe that's what's driving these decisions over who "won" the debates.
Those of us who talk for a living about who won debates and complain about them regurgitating portions of their stump speeches in snippet form during them forget that for most people the debates, along with the convention, really are a rare chance to hear the candidates themselves talk and present their ideas without "the filter of the media."
The media, as has been pointed out ad nauseum, are more interested in the horse race and the gotcha moments than on the substance of what the candidates are presenting. Maybe it's not entirely the media's fault, but many voters may only just now be learning, from the mouths of the various horses, what they would intend to do once in the White House.
If you believe polls, it's clear that voters prefer the Democrats on most issues this year. It may be that the debates serve to highlight the difficulty the Republicans face in talking about reform and change, while being unable to point out many major policy differences with the current administration. And President Bush is hitting new and historic lows in recent polling.
I think the fiscal crisis has the most to do with Obama's cresting poll numbers. But the debates as part of the great post-Labor Day tuning in of the least engaged voters is a factor as well.
We'll see how the next one goes. But at this point in the race, it's feeling to me like the huge structural disadvantages the Republicans were clearly going to face this year are catching up with McCain.
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