By Melinda Donahey….
The press will argue who won the debate on points. It’s totally irrelevant. (On points, it was a draw.) Speaking as a former state champion debater and as a former professional campaign organizer on the senior staff of two presidential campaigns in the 80s, I know that it just doesn’t matter.
Based on the results of previous debates going all the way back to Kennedy-Nixon, it’s well known that the American public doesn’t score presidential debates on points. (Nixon won on debate points, Kennedy won over the public and won the election.) I think polls tomorrow and in days to come will show that a majority of Americans believe Obama won, and I’ll be surprised if it turns out otherwise. Here’s why:
1. Expectations. Obama’s the challenger, the outsider. Expectations were lower for him, especially on foreign policy, supposedly McCain’s strong suit. He needed to show that he could stand on the stage with McCain, be credible, be knowledgeable, be forceful, be confident. He did all that extremely well. People could feel comfortable with him. The newbie met or exceeded expectations. Kennedy did this in 1960 and won. Reagan did it in 1980 and won. So Obama wins category one.
2. Body language. McCain looked angry, cranky, was disrespectful; he hunched over and never looked directly at Obama. Barack looked directly at McCain repeatedly (showing no fear), stood up straight, never grew flustered or angry, challenged McCain directly but without showing contempt. (In 1960, Nixon lost this category because he looked tired, wan, and hunched over. Kennedy looked rested, relaxed. In 2000, Gore lost this category because he sighed audibly, made faces and shrugged, showing evident distain for Bush. The American people don’t like contempt openly displayed.) Barack wins category two
3. Non-Partisanship. Obama agreed with McCain on some points. (The right will spin this as a win for McCain. It’s inside baseball, important to the right but not to anybody else. If the press buys this, they’ll demonstrate again that they’re idiots.) Obama’s agreement, like his demeanor in general, demonstrated the willingness to rise above partisanship, something Americans have said in poll after poll they want to see.) McCain talked about reaching across the aisle, but most importantly, HE DIDN’T DEMONSTRATE IT. OBAMA DID. Rule No. One: SHOW, DON’T TELL! Obama wins category three.
4. The Future. Obama talked about the future a lot, McCain about the past. People care about what the next president will DO, not what he did or where he went 25 years ago. A significant segment of the public doesn’t remember most of those events, and another significant segment was born too late to remember them. It’s history book stuff. Policy wonks get caught up in it, but the public doesn’t care. Obama understood it’s about the FUTURE. He wins in category four.
5. Style of Speaking. Obama kept his answers short, straight-forward, easily understandable. He never wandered, his asides and one-liners made sense in context. He talked REPEATEDLY about how the economy affects the middle class and how the policies he will pursue will affect the average person. People care about how the policies of the next president will affect THEM.
McCain’s anecdotes were often discursive, he rambled a bit, he didn’t stay as focused on the points he was making. He made a few asides that didn’t quite make sense or sounded odd (and he didn’t provide the context to make them understandable.) References to Miss Congeniality simply reminded people of beauty queen Sarah Palin, who has turned into a liability and a reminder of McCain’s bad judgement. Above all, he didn’t bring it down to the “how will this affect YOU!!” level. Obama wins category five.
6. Change. McCain didn’t talk about change, which polls show people want this year especially. He talked about being a maverick, but polls show that people are not connecting that with change. Obama talked repeatedly about change. Obama wins category six.
(posted with permission from the author)