Monthly Archives: September 2008

It’s always something (or why candidates ignore me at their peril)

I had intended to post two entries, one on the state of the national polls and the second regarding the sudden media firestorm regarding Sarah Palin.  But events never seem to cooperate with my blogging intentions. Just when it appears that this election will revert to form, something unexpected happens.  This time the unexpected took place in the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives.  Contrary to expectations of both the Democratic leadership under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Bush administration, a bipartisan coalition of legislators just voted to reject the $700 billion bailout/rescue bill.  Based on the CNN report, fully 40% of Democrats and more than 60% of Republicans rejected the proposal. The final vote was 228 to 205, 13 votes short of what was needed to pass. The opposition from Republicans was expected, but the failure of the Democratic leadership to keep their troops in line was not.  As my students from Congress know, the House rules are designed to empower the majority party, and that means the party leadership under Speaker Pelosi should never bring up a bill unless they have the votes to prevail.  Evidently she thought she could withstand the expected defection of the Republicans, but miscalculated the strength of Democratic Party support.

I rarely venture into the area of punditry, but I will do so here because of what I wrote prior to Friday’s debate.  Recall my advice to McCain then: that if he acted boldly he could spring a trap that would ensnare Obama and the Democratic leadership by portraying them as working hand in glove with the Bush administration to pass the bailout/rescue legislation.  By taking the lead in opposing the bill, McCain could burnish his reputation as a maverick protecting small businessmen while putting Obama on the side of Bush as defenders of Wall St. and the status quo.  After laying the groundwork for the trap, however, by suspending his campaign and rushing back to Washington, McCain then backed down, opting instead to take the high road by expressing support for a bipartisan approach to solving the crisis using the Bush plan as the working blueprint. He thus sent a mixed message regarding his intentions and further ceded the economy as a winning issue for Obama.

Admittedly, opposing the bailout bill seemed like a high-risk gambit – if it passed, he would be viewed as obstructionist and without influence. If it failed, the markets would be in turmoil.  But that is the risk of leadership.  And as it turns out, the bill didn’t pass. Given the opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, had McCain taken the bold strategy I advocated he might have sold himself as the voice of the bipartisan center.  After laying the groundwork, he thus missed a golden opportunity to reshape the election narrative.

What about Obama?  It’s unclear how much – if at all – this will hurt him.  The assumption among all pundits I read was that he was on the right side of this issue; by backing the bailout bill, with conditions, he was making the smart move to be part of the solution to the nation’s credit crisis but in a way that protected the taxpayers’ interests.  It was the politically safe route. On this view, see, for example, this Howard Fineman article.  That claim is now in doubt. Nonetheless, my gut reaction is that although Obama expressed support for the legislation, in the end I don’t think he will be hurt too much by its failure to pass because the fallout will remind the public that we are in an economic crisis, and that works in his favor as the candidate of the “out” party.  Had McCain exercised a countervailing leadership on this issue, he might have made this situation worse for Obama.

McCain may yet salvage something from this, politically speaking, but I suspect he won’t gain nearly as much as he would have by taking a firm lead in opposing the bill.  To justify opposing the bill, he might have stressed two talking points: that the cost of this bill is more than what the nation has spent in the Iraq war to date, and that we had been told before that a government policy would, in the long run, pay for itself – and that was the justification for the invasion of Iraq.  But he didn’t do either, and I think he will pay the price for failing to do so.

Of course, this entire policy debate is in a state of flux.  It is unclear if the bailout bill is dead, to be replaced by the Republican House alternative, or whether it can be passed in revised form. McCain yet may inject himself into this debate. So, too, might Obama. But it is clear that most Republicans and many Democrats did not want to go back to their constituents in November having to defend a vote for this bill.  Pelosi clearly miscalculated in assuming the Democrats were willing, some 45 days before going to the polls, to be portrayed as the party backing a huge spending bill. This also reminds us that presidents are, with rare exceptions, almost never in a position to impose their will on a Congress that has other ideas. It is a lesson both McCain and Obama should take to heart.

The aftermath of the debate: No change at all

First, a tip of the blogging cap to all those who contributed to Friday’s online analysis of the presidential debate.  It was a fun night, and we get to do it all again on Thursday.  However, it is important to realize that most Americans do not analyze the debates at the depth that we did during our online live blogging. Remember that 80% of Americans already knew before the debate which candidate they were going to support. So most people viewing that debate did so with a rooting interest in the outcome, much as people do at a sporting event.  They have their favorite coming in, and they watch mostly to cheer their guy on and boo the competition.  Comparatively fewer are using the debates to decide for whom to vote.  With that in mind, what influence  will the debate have on the current race?

The short answer is: almost none. The debate’s impact is still working its way through the body politic, but the initial indications are consistent with what I suggested before the debate: the debate has had almost no impact on support for either candidate. Let’s look at the responses of several members of the viewing audience, moving from least to most important.

I begin with the least important: the pundits. With the predictable exceptions (E.J. Dionne on the left gave it to Obama, Bill Kristol on the right had McCain winning), a non-scientific sampling of the pundits indicates their views ranged from the debate was a draw to giving McCain a slight edge in terms of crispness of argument and depth of knowledge.  But, consistent with what I suggested in my post-debate comments, most pundits believe that a tie or even a slight McCain edge works to Obama’s advantage simply because the fundamental in the race favor the Democratic candidate, and this debate was on foreign policy which is McCain’s turf.

How about viewers?  There were at least two snap polls taken immediately after the debate that got heavy media play.  At first glance, both suggested that Obama had “won” the debate.   Democracy Corps ran an online poll of “uncommitted” voters that gave the edge to Obama, 38% to 27%, with 36% saying that neither candidate won. But what generally went unreported was the response to the more important question asked of these uncommitted voters: given the debate, which candidate will you now support?  After the debate, ½ of these uncommitted voters remained uncommitted, and the remaining half split evenly between McCain and Obama.   A second poll, commissioned by CNN, had Obama winning the debate 51-38%.  As CNN acknowledged, however, since their poll was weighted much more heavily to Democratic voters (who comprised a larger segment of their viewing audience), it was not surprising that the results skewed toward Obama.  “It can be reasonably concluded, especially after accounting for the slight Democratic bias in the survey, that we witnessed a tie in Mississippi tonight,” CNN Senior Political Researcher Alan Silverleib said. But as I also suggested in my earlier post, a no-decision likely favors Obama in the long run, particularly since the current focus among voters is on the bailout debate currently going on in Congress. The longer this debate remains front and center, the more Obama benefits, and in the long run, this issue will trump any lingering impact over Friday’s debate.

Early results, then, suggest the debate had no impact on the support for either candidate,  or if it did it did so in a way that favored neither candidate. This is consistent with the history of most debates, and again reaffirms my broader point that elections are rarely decided by debates or campaign ads or any of the other myriad tactics touted by the media and instead turn on much more fundamental issues, such as the state of the economy.   This is why political scientists can usually (but not always) predict the outcome long before the campaign begins.

Interestingly (and unexpectedly) initial reports are that the audience for Friday’s debate was smaller than expected, perhaps because it was held on a Friday night.  We won’t have the final numbers until tomorrow, but it appears that it fell far short of the record viewing audience that some predicted.

The next debate takes place on Thursday, between the two vice presidential candidates, and it promises to be even less consequential than the presidential debate.   On the other hand, it is likely to be even more fun.  The Couric interview has prepped many people to expect a train wreck from Palin, and Biden’s off the cuff remarks this campaign are already Grade-A YouTube material.  Expect both camps to start the recurring game of lowering the bar for their own candidate, and raising expectations for their opponent in the days leading up to the debate. (In this regard, I hope you got to see Tina Fey reprise her Palin impression last night.)

In the next day or so I’ll turn my attention to the national polls.  What impact is the credit crisis and bailout debate having on the presidential race?   Are we witnessing a turning point in the election?


Live Blogging the McCain-Obama debate

9:00.  There are two wildcards in any debate:  the questions the moderator asks, and how the media interprets the answers.  In some cases those can be more important than the actual answers of the candidates.  Jim Lehrer is typically an understated moderater with a very loose management style which may matter given the unusual format that allows a lot of give an take.

We’ll be watching the NBC version (no cable in Ripton.)

9:08.  Well, we won’t have to wait to see if the trap is set….so far Obama is playing his part.

Ok – it’s there for McCain to pounce – will he spring it?

9:10  Well, he didn’t spring a trap, but he didn’t not spring it either.

9:13.  Obama’s response was straightforward and effective. McCain is not doing enough to differentiate himself on this – he’s echoing Obama.  He needs to be much much more aggressive.

(The first “age” reference preempt by McCain…)

9:17.   It’s clear that McCain has decided to opt to appear above partisan politics – it’s not, in my view, the strategy he should use tonight.

9:22 – Obama – contrary to reputation – is getting right to the point, and as expected, tying McCain to Bush.

9:23 – Finally, McCain responds aggressively (ignore that senior moment – who was the senior Republican?  Never mind…)

9:25 – Interesting that Obama calls McCain “John”

9:27 Very effective Obama response on loopholes to counteract McCain on the Ireland-U.S. comparison.  A weaker response from McCain.  He’s not coming across quite as sharp as Obama…

9:31 – Jack Goodman points out that McCain is not wearing the flag lapel, but Obama is!

9:32 – McCain just wrote off Iowa …but otherwise this is his most effective answer of the night. Specifics and the first reference to Obama’s voting record.

9:37 Obama just created an opening by hinting at bringing troops home, and McCain missed it, instead moving to the energy issue.  He should have saved this for later, and jumped on Obama’s opening.

9:40 – McCain trots out the health care difference, but again it’s not in the flow of the argument.  He’s seems to be debating by handing out talking points, rather than addressing Obama’s argument.

9:43 – Finally, McCain has an effective answer (although it didn’t address the budget).  and the first Palin reference.  And now Iraq – McCain has to score and score big here….

9:45 – Well, just boilerplate – he had to put Obama on the defensive, and he didn’t and that gives Obama the chance to switch the debate to how the war started.

9:46 – If McCain can’t win this debate….

9:47.  Finally, McCain shoots and scores!  Good segment for McCain

9:49  McCain is winning this segment – Obama should move on, and quickly.  Saying it’s not his committee?  Not good.  And you can tell McCain is passionate about this topic.  He speaks off script here, and it’s far more effective than his talking points.   Obama is on the defensive…..

9:50  Obama is not helping himself here. Move on…

9:54  McCain is on the brink of turning this debate around.  Obama needs to end this.

9:56 Jesse is right here – Obama needs to stop debating why the war started.  And attacking Karzi?  What?

9:58.  McCain is just so much better here – he’s more confident, because he speaks from experience, not talking points.  You can see that Obama is well read, but not well versed in this.  Is the public picking up on this, and will it matter?

9:59 – Obama had a nice response going until he went cute with the songs comment. Wrong topic to go cute on.

10:00 – McCain is scoring, and scoring big.  Obama suddenly is looking very very young.

10:03 – First New Hampshire reference (btw – it’s a battleground state!)

10:05 – Dueling bracelets!  Obama is getting a little long-winded here.  McCain will not let him off the hook on Iraq and the surge.   How many times has McCain prefaced his response to Obama by saying “What Senator Obama doesn’t understand”?  Very effective….

10:10 – McCain remains on the offensive.  But Obama counters nicely on the preconditions point.  Still, McCain is poised to pounce.  Obama is scoring debating points, but still comes across as making points in debate school, while missing the bigger picture that McCain is trying to paint here: Obama talks the talk, but hasn’t walked the walk.

Here’s the “Obama doesn’t understand” comment again!  That’s 5, by my count….

Suddenly it’s “Senator McCain” – things are turning frosty.

McCain’s viagra has kicked in!

10:22. Can you say “Noose Lukes?” three times fast?  I didn’t think so.

10:22  Now Obama’s “naive” as well as not “understanding”!    Nice line about three letters in Putin’s eye….

Very nice move here by McCain to bring the Georgian conflict into the discussion.  He’s schooling Obama again on this issue….

Obama’s response: “What he said”….not all that effective.

10:26  Nice move by Obama to tie energy into security. Let’s see how McCain parries….

10:30: 9-11 Question: McCain should hit this out of the park.  Obama wasn’t in office.  Obama – is he in favor of missile defense?  Or not?  Again, not very crisp here…

10:37 Obama is smart to pick up on our  loss of international standing. Unfortunately, this gives McCain a chance to separate himself from Bush  on Geneva, Guantanamo?  Will he take advantage?

makes that 6 times = “obama doesn’t understand… doesn’t get it”….  McCain instead goes back to attacking the Obama timetable….nice closing rhetorical phrase which he will undoubtedly come back to in the closing statement.

10:37 Nice response here by Obama to bring in spending on veterans…

10:38  OK.  The cards on the table.  Ouch!  Obama as Bush!  Both stubborn, both wrong on Iraq!  Very very nicely done…..and an effective parry to the Obama veterans comments.

Obama needs to respond to this.  He must have expected it.

Nice twist by Obama to turn it back to America’s image abroad.

And now the spin begins!

Obama clearly was in control early as the topic focused on the economy.  Obama was sharper, and McCain looked hesitant and overly rehearsed.  But as the night went on, McCain got stronger and appeared poised, passionate and more informed.  That was largely because this was a debate on McCain’s turf.

But how will the media spin it?  and will it move the public appreciably?  My guess is after the shaky start, McCain did nothing to lessen the uncertainty among some about Obama’s preparation to commander in chief.   If anyone was helped in this, I think McCain was.  But history suggests that the impact of a single debate is generally transient.  Will this be the same?

Ok what were your views?

Post-debate:  Nice move here by Obama camp to immediately bring Biden on board for damage control and follow up (he’s on NBC now – and now on CBS.  Where’s Palin?)

Ok, I’m signing off. My gut tells me this will not be a game changer, but instead will fit quite well with the historical pattern that shows very little impact of the debates on support for either candidate. But I am curious whether the audience will top the 80 million that watched the Reagan-Carter 1980 debate the biggest audience for a presidential debate so far.

11:30 Afterword

In the end, I think this debate will do little to change the historical pattern in which debates have almost no impact on the outcome of the presidential race.  McCain probably did slightly better in terms of demonstrating more knowledge about the issues, but it was a debate on his turf, so this is no surprise. Obama may have demonstrated less experience, but he made no gaffes and generally came across as someone conversant in foreign policy issues.  If he did not convince anyone that he was more qualified than McCain to lead this nation in the war on terror, he didn’t disqualify himself either.

In the bigger picture, however, Obama wins because McCain did nothing to change the underlying fundamentals of this race.  He had an opportunity to differentiate himself from Obama on the bailout plan, and he passed it up.  As a result, my guess is the debate did little to change the dynamics of this race, and that means Obama wins.  Had McCain rolled the dice, as he did with Palin, there was a chance that he might have changed the dynamics driving this race.  He chose to not to do so, and thus lost one of the few remaining opportunities he will have to change the narrative of this race.   If he won the battle tonight, he most assuredly did not win the war.

That’s my reaction tonight. We’ll see how the media spins this tomorrow, and how the public reacts to that spin.

Meanwhile, it’s on to the Vice Presidential debate.   Will Palin wear lipstick?  Will Biden remind us how FDR went on television in 1929 during the stock market crash?

It doesn’t get any better than this….

Is McCain Setting a Trap?

And will Obama walk into it?

Certainly all the signs are there:  McCain’s sudden decision to abandon the campaign and rush to Washington for high-stakes summits with Bush and Obama, and with Republican and Democratic leaders negotiating the administration’s bailout bill.   While Obama echoes the Democratic leadership in expressing cautious support for the bailout bill, McCain remains largely silent except to tell Republicans leaders that he “has their back.”  He then reverses his stance again, and decides to debate after all.  What could he be thinking?

If McCain is smart, he’s thinking this:  if surveys are to be believed, most of the country is not convinced that the Bush Administration’s $700 billion bailout plan is warranted, a viewpoint that is shared by conservative Republicans in the House.  Most Democrats, including Obama, as well as most Senate Republicans, on the other hand, do support the plan, contingent on safeguards being built in to increase Congressional oversight of any bailout plan while reducing the treasury secretary’s authority to assume the debts of failing financial institutions.  The differences between the Democrats and Bush are not in the overall bailout policy framework but in the details regarding how to implement it.  Those are critical but negotiable differences, and both sides are confident that they will come to an agreement before Monday.

So what is the trap?  If I am McCain, I allow Obama to use tonight’s debate to reiterate his cautious support for the Democratic/Bush plan, assuming tax payers are protected, etc., etc.  And then I spring the trap by coming out squarely against the Bush-Democratic plan, labeling it a deal that benefits Wall St. financiers at the expense of middle-class Americans who are being asked to clean up the mess created by Wall St.’s excesses.  Ordinary Americans don’t get government bail outs, I would say. Rather than the Bush-Democratic plan,  I would instead embrace, at least as a starting point for negotiations, the Republican alternative plan that calls for financial institutions to buy insurance from the government (with a capital gains tax cut thrown in to boot)  – a much cheaper proposal, and one that plays much better to the Republican base.  Sure the experts are against it (the same experts, by the way, who assured us there were WMD’s in Iraq!)

What does this accomplish?  It places McCain squarely in opposition to Bush (four more years of Bush-Cheney?  I think not!), the Democrats – and Obama – on the most important economic policy debate that is likely to arise during this campaign.  It reinforces McCain’s reputation as someone not beholden to either party.  It plays directly to the economic views of independents and lower-to-middle income voters who are the key swing bloc in this campaign.  Finally, it provides an immediate and highly-publicized antidote to the perception that Obama owns the economic debate, and that this is McCain’s Achilles heel.  Suddenly it is Obama who becomes the establishment candidate, working hand-in-glove to implement the Bush-Paulson plan, and it is McCain who is the maverick reformer who stands up for the Main St. small businessmen and women.

Admittedly it is high risk strategy – Palinesque in its potential upside, but with a real downside as well: it risks roiling the financial markets even more, continuing the credit crunch, and likely contributing to more of the stock market rollercoaster.  And of course the media will attack McCain for playing politics with a volatile issue. But if it allows McCain to separate himself from Bush, and counteract Obama’s clear advantage on the economy, and if it serves as leverage that McCain can use on behalf of conservative Republicans at the negotiating table, the benefits likely outweigh the risks.  Without a reversal in how voters view the candidates and the economy, Obama is going to win this campaign.  If McCain truly believes the country is better off with him as President, he needs to change that scenario.

Earlier this year I asked if McCain had the imagination to choose a women V.P. in response to Obama’s failure to put Clinton on the ticket.  He showed that he did.

Can he make it two for two?  Has he set Obama up for tonight by carefully orchestrating events during the last three days in a high stakes bid to reverse the impact of the financial credit crunch on the presidential race?  If so, it would be an audacious affirmation that the McCain team is once again playing chess to Obama’s checkers.  Contrary to media and pundits’ commentaries, debates are almost never game-changers as I pointed out in an earlier post.  McCain must hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.  He needs to capitalize on what I expect to be an unusually large viewing audience for this debate to change the election narrative.  If he does not – if the economy continues to be the winning card for Obama – McCain will lose the election.

What will it be?  Trap or stalemate?

I’ll be live blogging the debate as we find out….

Will Friday’s debate be a game-changer?

As most of you know, John McCain and Barak Obama will meet this Friday in a much anticipated and sure to be much watched presidential debate, the first of a scheduled three such debates. Media pundits undoubtedly will resurrect past debates as evidence that these events can significantly influence the outcome of the presidential election.  They will cite the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, where Nixon – lacking makeup and coming off an illness – looked ill at ease while Kennedy appeared relaxed. In 1976, Gerald Ford inadvertently “freed” Poland from Soviet domination – a gaffe that some say cost him the debate and the election. In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s shaky first debate with Walter Mondale resurrected questions regarding his age.  In 1988, Michael Dukakis’ bloodless reply to a hypothetical question about how he would react to the rape and murder of his wife supposedly cost him a good deal of support. Similarly, pundits claimed thta George H. W. Bush spent too much time looking at his watch and appearing disinterested in his debate with Clinton and Perot in 1992. In 2000, Al Gore’s sighing and excessive eye-rolling cost him crucial support, according to many experts.  I could go on, but these anecdotal snippets suggest that presidential debates are frequently game-changing events. But are they?

The answer is: not usually, at least historically. As evidence, I refer you to a study by Tom Holbrook (see Holbrook data) who concludes that there is very little change in the underlying support for presidential candidates after a debate. Holbrook calculates that across the 13 televised presidential debates he researched in the period 1988-2004, the average swing in support for the incumbent party candidate was about 1%.  There are exceptions of course – George H. W. Bush lost 2% in the second of the three presidential debates in 1992, and his son George W. Bush lost 2.2% in support after the first debate with John Kerry in 2004.  Looking more broadly at changes in support starting one week before the first debate to one week after the final debate, Holbrook finds a bit more change. The most extreme change occurred as a result of the three 2000 debates, when Al Gore lost a cumulative 3.5% across this time period.  However, it is hard to know just how much of this drop in support was attributable to his debate performance, and how much was caused by other factors.

Part of the reason that pundits think debates matter is because the media acts as if they do.  When Ford liberated Poland in the 1976 debates, viewers understood what he was trying to say – that the Polish people, despite Soviet domination, retained their sense of independence.  Right after the debate, most viewers surveyed thought Ford had won.  After the media began weighing in, however, Ford’s remarks were cast in a different light, and surveys now began to show that he lost the debate.  So one needs to be careful in separating out the influence of the debate from that of the media coverage. In this regard, expect both the McCain and the Obama camps to engage in an ongoing effort to spin the debate, beginning by lowering expectations for their own candidate, and raising them for their opponent. Then, during the debate, they will send out comments to underscore or clarify what the candidate just said.  Finally, immediately upon concluding the debate, members of both camps will hustle to the “spin room” and explain why the opposition candidate just lost the election while failing to lay a glove on their own guy.

If history is a guide, however, the spin emanating from both camps will largely cancel one another, and there will be very little change in the underlying support for either McCain or Obama after Friday’s debate.  But is the past history of debates relevant for Friday’s event?  McCain, for the most part, is a known quantity to most voters, but Obama is not.  For this reason, I think Obama’s potential upside in this debate is greater than McCain’s.  The fundamentals in this campaign favor the Democrats, but there is a good deal of uncertainty re: Obama in terms of both his experience and his readiness to be president.  He needs to calm those fears by coming  across as “presidential.”  If he does so, that may convince voters that despite his relative inexperience, he is ready to be president. The closest historical analogy in terms of debates that I can recall would be 1980, when the fundamentals favored the Republicans, but many voters were unsure of Ronald Reagan’s readiness to be president.  For the most part, he calmed voters’ fears with a much understated, reassuring debate performance.  Obama needs to do the same.  He “wins” then, just by appearing on stage with McCain and not making any huge mistakes.  For McCain, the key – as it was for Reagan in 1984 – is to show that he is still physically and mentally sharp, and to counteract the whispering campaign about his temperament.  But, as the trailing candidate in terms of fundamentals, he also needs to be more aggressive in going after Obama on the issues, particularly since this first debate is supposed to focus on foreign policy, which plays into McCain’s policy strength.

For both candidates, this is one of the few remaining instances where they are likely to have a national audience.  Just how many people will be watching? In part II of this post, I will present data on the size of the viewing audience for past televised debates.