Which candidate will be happier with their performance?
Given the spectacle presented for our delectation only a couple of hours ago, I cannot have been alone in wishing Senators McCain and Obama had resolved to stay in Washington, rather than attend the first Presidential debate at Ole Miss. In retrospect, I would actually have preferred that the negotiations over the Congressional bailout had been televised instead. The clear consensus on PB.com was that this was a boring affair, peppered with occasional interludes of dullness, and garnished with stale soundbites and soporific delivery.
Neither candidate could afford to lose badly, even after a hard fortnight of expectations-management by the campaigns, and so both played as though they were seeking to avoid defeat, rather than aim for a clear victory. Negative jibes were rare, attacks of any vigour completely absent – this was debating-by-numbers, with all the jokes and cliches that have ever received a favourable press recycled in the vain hope of inducing a wan smile.
McCain is a better debater than he is a public speaker, whereas Obama struggles to leave his academic podium for the cut-and-thrust of the debating hall. He did avoid appearing aloof, but also lacked energy. McCain was workmanlike, and avoided eye contact with Obama, or direct reference to his opponent by his forename. The recurring phrase he was seeking to introduce was ‘Senator Obama doesn’t understand…’; an opportunity afforded him largely due to the (apparent) foreign policy focus of the debate.
The CNN dials were worth a watch – Republicans, Democrats and Independents would dial ‘up’ if they liked what a candidate was saying, and ‘down’ if they didn’t. More than one person noted that the Independent ticker stayed closer to the Democratic line than the Republican one. It seemed that the Republican line was more likely to remain net favourable for the Democratic candidate than vice versa. None of the movements were strong enough to suggest that a fundamental shift in the polls should be expected, though one or two people suggested that we were seeing a hardening in Democratic Party support. The other notable feature of the dials was how badly Independents responded to negative attacks by either candidate on their opponent, or even explicitly on the other party.
Most who watched the debate called it a no-score draw, though perhaps the better allegory would be a boxing match scarcely won on points (by split decision). These were two, weary heavyweight fighters, lumbering about the ring, spending more time locked in a defensive embrace than throwing actual punches. McCain had more to lose, after his suggestion that he wanted the debate to be postponed, and he acquitted himself admirably, and with fortitude. Obama was not on home turf, even with the subject of the $700bn Congressional bailout on loan to the discipline of International Relations, but similarly survived a tough contest comparitively unscathed.
I don’t think this debate will see any violent changes in polling numbers. For those who were saying that McCain needs another ‘Palin episode’ to recover a polling lead, and that the debates offered that opportunity, some concern might not be misplaced. If he needed more than a draw from last night, then Obama should be the happier candidate this morning. Conversely, Obama supporters may feel a little concerned that he still does not seem relaxed in the debating arena – a weakness that may either be ameliorated or fatally exposed at the next event: a joint Town Hall.
So, on balance, a fairly neutral result from a fairly bland contest. We are a day closer to November 4th, and there is one fewer debate to upturn the tables. Whether you think that benefits one candidate more than the other will likely depend on your own allegiances.
[Betting news: The chart above shows the changes in the Betfair price on John McCain over a 24 hour period until 5am this morning. The odds are expressed as an implied probability – Mike Smithson]
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