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Round 3: Obama Calm, McCain Aggressive

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Oct 8, 2008

It is easier to debate when you are the frontrunner. When you have (or perceive yourself to have) a comfortable lead, you play defense, make your points, and avoid mistakes while the candidate who trails has to go on offense to make something happen to change the dynamics of the race. And going on offense provides the chance for a large reward (win the debate) but also a great risk (looking offensive). And that is a fine line when the stakes are the White House. Thus, in last night's debate, Obama played the calm, cool, collected frontrunner while McCain to be aggressive to make the big play.

While poised, Obama made his political points. He connected Bush to McCain (deregulation, mortgage crisis, Iraq, etc.), showed he was "in touch" (gas is $3.80 in Nashville, I understand health care because my mother died of cancer while arguing with insurance over coverage), and undermined the judgment of the experienced candidate (I don't understand invading a country that has no connection to 9/11, being greeted as liberators, and spending money when Iraq has a $79 billion surplus) while demonstrating his judgment (letter to Treasury Secretary Paulson on sub-prime, oppose Iraq, etc.).

Moreover, Obama acted "presidential" which is no small feat for an unknown, inexperienced candidate. First, he demonstrated a knowledge of the issues. Second, he used the "presidential voice" by beginning each question with his diagnosis, his plan, and his optimism that American can solve this problem. Only after that, did he attack McCain. This contrasted with McCain who attacked first and then discussed his plan. For a public who cannot pay close attention to everything said, they hear plans from Obama before tuning out while attacks from McCain helping them tune him out.

Third, whenever McCain attacked Obama, Obama simply smiled and/or gave a slight laugh which said "isn't it sad that McCain has to resort to this." This allowed Obama to look above the fray of the petty bickering of McCain and that he only responded because he had to. Finally, we cannot discount the fact that Obama looked poised during this time of an economic crisis which is how we expect our presidents to act.

This does not mean that McCain was not successful. He successfuly demonstrated he is a bipartisan leader (immigratin reform, campaign finance reform, Medicare commission) in contrast to the liberal Obama who raises taxes. McCain was even able to connect Obama to Bush through his vote for the energy package. McCain also attacked the judgment of Obama connecting him to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and questioning his understanding of foreign affairs. In fact, McCain's best line was "maybe" regarding whether Russia is an evil empire because he showed his understanding of the nuance of international relations.

The problem is that McCain's aggressiveness can make him look like the grumpy, old man. In fact, one of my Republican leaning students said that McCain reminded her of Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace . And since you are there in front of voters, it is more difficult to engage in personal attacks because most voters don't like attacks and a candidate does not need a picture of voters reacting negatively to your comments.

For practically each response, McCain began with an attack on Obama. Since he trails in the polls, he is trapped as he must do this to undermine the public's confidence in Obama. And while Obama defended himself and attacked McCain, he did not come across as the aggressor. When the opposition claims that you lack the temperament to make sober choices, you should not reinforce it by demonstrating it.

Furthermore, McCain's use of humor to attack failed. McCain's "thank you very much" in response to Obama quoting him as "somber and responsible," "nail jello to a wall," "I didn't hear anythin abuot a fine," and other jokes fell flat and reminded you of your grandparent's corny jokes. Plus, most people took McCain's "that one" remark as condescending. This is not the impression you want to give voters.

Moreover, students, my colleagues and I watched the debate on CNN and they had undecided voters in Ohio using dials to indicate whether they liked or disliked what the candidates said. Obama always scored higher than McCain and attacks on the other always led to lower scores. The fact that McCain started with attacks first probably explains why his lines never got as high as Obama's on the meter.

Finally, while Obama looked presidential, the election is not over. Because as much as voters preferred Obama's answers, the CNN focus group said that if the election were held today, 14 of the 25 would vote for McCain. This suggests that McCain's attacks may be working as voters like Obama's message but question the messenger. This also means that we are likely to see more attacks on Obama in the remaining 26 days.