Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



McCain Wins Debate on Points, Obama Wins Overall

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 27, 2008

In last night's first presidential debate, Sen. John McCain performed slightly better than Sen. Barack Obama keeping Obamna on the defensive and on issues that McCain is most comfortable with. However, Obama showed poise and command of the subject proving he has what it takes to be president. Since the major concern about Obama is his inexperience (especially on foreign policy in a time of war), his performance did enough to make voters comfortable with him -- and for Obama that is a win.

First, each candidate was successful in their goals for the night. McCain wanted to distance himself from Bush, demonstrate his bipartisan leadership, and make the point that Obama is inexperienced. Obama wanted to tie the failures of the past eight years of the Bush Administration to McCain to claim the "change" mantle, show a presidential temperament via his knowledge and poise, and show a passion for his views and campaign. Let's look at each candidate in turn.

McCain distanced himself from Bush proving he is a maverick repeatedly through the debate whether it was on torture, Gitmo, Iraq, the 9-11 Commission, spending, etc. He constantly referred to his bipartisan leadership credentials, implicitly criticizing Obama's lack thereof ("too far to the left to bridge the divide"), praising Ted Kennedy as the "Lion of the Senate," his initial support of Nunn-Lugar to control loose nukes (making Obama a Johnny Come Lately), pushing the 9-11 Commission with Sen. Joe Lieberman, etc. Moreover, he pointed out how Obama's inexperience and judgment were in doubt with "there's a difference between a tactic and strategy," "the next president of the United States will not have to address the issue of whether or not we should have gone into Iraq. The issue is when we leave and how we leave," the problems with meeting roguw world leaders ("We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No, you're not'? Oh, please!"), and correcting Obama on former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's psoition on meeting with world leaders. Moreover, McCain benefited from appearing more optimistic. Obama needs to link Bush to McCain which means that he had to focus on the past while McCain could say we need to look toward the future and that our "best days are yet to come." That is more appealing to voters.

Obama effectively tied McCain to the Bush years and its failures. When discussing the economy, he came back to the fact that the problem is due to the deregulatory policies of the past 8 years under Bush that McCain supported and that McCain supported the failed Bush war policies. Moreover, he also showed a command of foreign policy that will make most voters comfortable (albeit a low standard but one that Palin will benefit from on Thursday and McCain in the domestic policy debate). Moreover, he parried the experience card with the judgment card with his best line of the night. On Iraq, "You [McCain] said it was going to be quick and easy. You were wrong. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong." Finally, Obama, the cool, dispassionate professor, showed passion over what he was talking about which should help him connect with voters and comfort his base who feared he may be another Dukakis.

And so while both Obama and McCain accomplished their political goals, McCain won on points because he was in control of the debate constantly putting Obama on the defensive. He pointed out where Obama was wrong, showed his "naivete" using Obama's words showing Obama's inexperience and poor judgment, and forcing Obama to spend his time correcting what McCain said. This effectively meant that he talked about the things that McCain wanted rather than what Obama wanted. Even on the economy (McCain's weak suit), he got Obama talking about tax cuts and cutting wasteful spending via earmarks (Republican issues) rather than the larger economic troubles. Moreover, Obama constantly saying that McCain is "right" was meant to show their agreement so Obama could turn the debate to issues that worked for him but the number of times made it look like he was following McCain, instead of leading.

The one thing that McCain will have to work on though for the next debate is his tone. He had some good zingers and was able to make them without his annoying smirk which says "I know I zinged him." But, he needs to be careful attacking Obama. The relentless way that McCain went about saying that Obama is naive, inexperienced, doesn't understand things, and is as stuborn as Bush makes him look condescending. He does not want the public perceiving McCain as the "grumpy old man" talking down to the young whippersnapper.

So if McCain put Obama on the defensive and fought the debate on his terms, how is Obama the winner? Simply, different expectations. McCain, due to his experience, had to win convincingly. Obama just had to prove that he deserves to be on the stage and that he has the intelligence, judgment, and poise to be president. Obama's expectations are easily met for a politician as smart and skilled as he is. That is why a slight edge to McCain allows Obama to easily exceed expectations and win.

This was confirmed by polls after the debate over who won. A CBS poll showed that the public thought Obama won the debate 39-25% while a CNN poll had Obama winning 51-39%. Either way, it is clear that Obama exceeded the expectations of the public -- and in a democracy, they are the only judges that matters.