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Obama Wins Debate Hat Trick

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Oct 16, 2008

In last night's debate, Senator Barack Obama looked calm, easily dismissed McCain's attacks, and appealed to centrist voters making him last night's winner and earning him the debate hat trick. Of course, it is easy to remain calm and reassuring, casually dismiss your opponent, and appeal to centrists when you are up in the polls, people view the economy as imploding and they blame the incumbent party, and the opponent has to go on the attack which independent voters claim they hate (even though research shows attacks ads are effective).

As I mentioned in my last debate blog, debating while in the lead is easy because your goal is to make no mistakes. And Obama accomplished that. He also did several things well. First, he looked directly into the camera when talking to middle class voters to explain his plan allowing him to connect with voters.

Second, he easily swatted away McCain's attacks whether he is stands up to his party (tort reform, charter schools, performance pay for teachers), Bill Ayers (I served on the board funded by Ronald Reagan's ambassador with college presidents and Republicans), taxes (we both beleive in cutting taxes, the difference is for whom we cut taxes), McCain's mortgage relif plan (we shouldn't buy homes not worth what the owners paid for), etc.

Third, he appealed directly to centrist voters. Knowing he has his base wrapped up, Obama directed his appeal to middle class voters and centrists who may still have doubts. Focusing on cutting taxes for 95% of people, helping reduce the number of abortions, charter schools, responsibility (individuals made bad decisions just like corporations and government), tort reform, etc. allows Obama to expand his and his party's support in battelground states and those hosting competitive congressional elections.

McCain, however, was better able to connect his message to voters, has some good themes to drive home during the rest of the campaign, but did not close the deal on his attacks. First, I thought that the appeal to Joe the Plumber was effective (at least the first couple of times, then it became tired) because he showed how his policies would directly impact and potentially help everyday Americans.

I also thought that McCain drove home some points effectively. First, his best line was "I'm not George Bush. If you wanted to run against him, you should have run four years ago." That line and his list of disagreements helped distance himself from Bush. His second best line was probably on vouchers when he parried Obama's admission of their effectiveness but opposition because there are not enough when McCains aid "Because there's not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn't do it, even though it's working."

McCain also has a potential good line by saying that we should not raise taxes in poor economic times. That has the potential to stick with voters because it is logical (even if Obama limits it to the top 5%). He also scored by showing that Obama voted for budgets larger than George Bush proposed and that Obama has sought earmarks. Finally, McCain will attack Obama's "spread the wealth" comment which may cause some middle class voters who have been responsible with their mortgages and savings to have second thoughts about Obama.

The problem is that McCain makes logical conservative arguments when the public is questioning conservative economic arguments. This may depress its effects on centrist voters.

Finally, McCain failed to drive some of his key points home (other than on vouchers). On partial birth abortion, he did not finish his thought on the "health exception" assuming that people know what it means. He should have said that the American Medical Association said that there is never a "health" reason for partial birth abortion in the third trimester.

On free trade, McCain did not make clear that the trade pact with Columbia would drop all tariffs on American goods going into Columbia. He should have also rebutted Obama's reason for not supporting it because of attacks of labor leaders by mentioning that the Columbia government has drastically reduced assasinations through its policies such as providing bodyguards to labor leaders.

On Ayers, when Obama said that he had nothing to do with "this" campaign, McCain should have referenced Obama's first campaign for office, his original attack, and said Ayers held a fundraiser in his home. He could have also made a strong ACORN attack and rebuttal. Then he could have connected his judgment to his policies on taxes in a recession, larger budgets, vouchers, etc.

So McCain had the impossible task. He had to have a "game changer" which it is ridiculous to expect from a debate which is rarely, if ever, a game changer. He had to attack Obama to force Obama to make a mistake while Obama can be confident that the attacks won't work. He had to attack without looking mean (McCain did his best last night looking more passionate than angry). Overall, the expectations were such that McCain could not win. And unfortunately for McCain, for once, McCain met his expectations.