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?



  1. Do you envision anything between now and the election that could significantly alter the race (assuming no Rev. Wright-esque situations)? And do you think that the Get Out The Vote efforts of either or both campaigns will make an impact that is not displayed in polls?

  2. The debate was interesting for what it didn’t say last night. No Rev. Wright or Ayers or Keating Five. Not exactly the high ground, but better than Willie Horton or Swift Boat distractions.

  3. The best line I’ve heard so far is that the October surprise came on September 23rd when the House watched the market melt down 770 points as they defeated the “bailout” or rescue plan.

    It’s still the economy stupid.

    The big loser last night was the Bush and the administration.

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