A lot of people miss the point of political debates. These are not academic exercises determined by judges on content. They aren't about being right and wrong, and they sure as hell aren't about agreeing with you. If you are going to measure a debate by that standard, there's no point in watching it, because we usually know the positions ahead of time. No, a political debate is about one thing: keeping the voters you have, getting the rare few to change sides, and grab as many of the undecideds as you can. That is the relevant measure, and that is how I'm going to analyze this: who got the most voters.
When I was in college there was a rally for Walter Mondale, who was challenging Ronald Reagan. The city and university were dominated by Democrats, yet when we went to the rally, the Reagan people outnumbered the Mondale people. I knew then that Mondale was going to get massacred.
Watching the predebate coverage, I was thinking similar things. The MSNBC coverage was outside, with the live crowd behind them. It was predominantly Obama supporters, and when Chris Matthews took an affirmation poll, the pro-Obama response was considerably more enthused and loud compared to the McCain crew. On Fox, they were doing their broadcast inside the empty auditorium. Were they unable to find a crowd of enthusiastic McCain supporters to back them? It seems unlikely they would pass on the opportunity to have them there.
This is Mississippi folks. Mississippi, the state at the heart of the five states that voted for George Wallace, and the state that hasn't gone Democrat since Jimmy Carter. If the Obama people are outnumbering the McCain people in Mississippi, it shows that whatever support McCain has is lukewarm at best. Watch for Obama to greatly outperform McCain on election day where ever the weather is poor. Obama's people are fired up enough to brave wind and rain to cast their vote. McCain's will stay home.
The debate seemed uneventful compared to many past debates. There were no "You are no Jack Kennedy" moments, no knockout punches. Obama's approach was more general, McCain's more focused. McCain did not dodder, Obama was smoother off the cuff than some give him credit for. McCain mostly attacked, Obama countered. It was the verbal equivalent of Marciano against Ali. And there were several things I found interesting and likely to nab votes.
McCain kept using the phrase "Senator Obama doesn't understand...". He must have said it ten times. This is a very aggressive strategy. It will get him votes if people believed it, or if he repeated it enough times to have it sink into our collective consciousness. But it could easily come off as mean spirited, especially given McCain's less than perfect posture and near sneering demeanor. More on this later.
Obama' retort was usually to challenge McCain on the facts, which means the exchange will be decided by who the voters believe. This was exacerbated by McCain often defending his position with little more than a promise or his word. "I've known him for years...", "I assure you...". Prior to the Palin nomination and all the consequent controversy, I'd have seen this as a safe strategy. But I'm not sure how that is going to play given the intense scrutiny and criticism the McCain campaign has gotten across the political spectrum for, as Karl Rove put it, failing the "100% truth test" with its campaign ads. That's sort of like being told by Darth Vader that you are a little cruel. They say McCain is a big gambler, and this sure is one example. If his credibility was effected by the ad flap, he's going to lose all those exchanges.
It was interesting to note that there was exactly one flag pin worn, and it was on Obama. Hopefully that will put an end to that nonissue.
Obama definitely made gains with regard to some of the false rumors that had been floated about him with regard to his ability to speak knowledgeably about the issues, and without a teleprompter. It remains to be seen whether the voters agree with his views, but the idea that he is an empty rhetorical suit is dead for anyone who watched this debate.
It also put to rest the notion that Obama has done nothing but write books, as he managed to work into the conversation his work on nuclear proliferation, and government accountability with his google government idea. This was probably the biggest vote gainer of the evening. In some ways, while the debate was in a sense on McCain's turf, Obama really had an advantage because he is the newer player, and opinions of him have been shifted downward by some misinformation, leading to lower expectations (the same advantage Palin will have against Biden). McCain, being the more established candidate, didn't really have that opportunity. At best, barring a major gaffe from Obama, McCain could only hope to hold serve. There is no doubt that more people came away from the debate pleasantly surprised by Obama's performance than McCain's.
McCain had a distinct disadvantage on aesthetics going in, similar to what Nixon faced against the bronze god of JFK. But he didn't help matters by snickering at Obama (shades of al Gore's sighs), rarely looking in the camera (ie, at the viewers), and practically never at Obama. Obama played to the camera, speaking directly to the viewer, and restricted his reactions to McCain's comments to smiles. He had to avoid looking smug and aloof, and I think he succeeded, although he could have done without the off camera looks and smiles (I assume to his wife).
The one big mistake Obama may have made, and the McCain people are already making a lot of it, is that he kept saying when he agreed with McCain, or when he thought McCain was right. He must have done this a dozen times. Comments like that, while displaying a nonpartisan and intellectually honest approach, can easily be spliced into sound bites that make it look like Obama is deferring to McCain. McCain will gain ground with this from the undecideds who didn't watch the debate, or got bored with the slow start.
The potentially devastating comment McCain made, which could cost him mightily, was his remark that America will never again torture anyone. This is a tacit admission that America has tortured, which may not be well received.
My bet is that Obama will gain more votes from this debate, mostly because he had lower expectations and exceeded them. The initial poll from CBS supports this interpretation:
"Thirty-nine percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate tonight thought Barack Obama was the winner. Twenty-four percent thought John McCain won. Thirty-seven percent saw it as a draw.
Forty-six percent of uncommitted voters said their opinion of Obama got better tonight. Thirty-two percent said their opinion of McCain got better."
Now the roles reverse, as Biden goes into his debate with Palin as a huge favorite, far more than McCain was tonight. He will consequently face even bigger demands, and will lose votes if he fails to live up to them. The expectations for Palin couldn't be lower after her disastrous interviews, which means if she gets through the debate without looking like a complete idiot, she'll gain votes. We'll see in a week.