During the first debate of 2004, George Bush was universally declared the loser of the debate. He lost his cool, looked uncomfortable, and seemed to give off an air of “why do I need to be here with this wannabe?”.
Let’s be honest, a lot of us on the right watched the televised version of the debate and cringed. We thought Bush had done “ok”, but we really knew that Kerry had won that debate on points.
It didn’t matterJudging debates based on winning and losing is a fools game. The only people who keep score and care are the partisans who are already sold on their candidate. The post debate spin is predictable and expected by everyone. Luntz’s focus group of “undecideds” will say the Democrat won. The media will declare it a draw if the Republican did better that the Democrat. And the media and Democrats will try to find something in the debate to hit the Republican with. During 2004 it was “Bush looked annoyed and not presidential”, during 2008 it is “McCain didn’t look at Obama”.
Remember the left is driven by emotion, so silly critiques of debate style matter to them. But they don’t matter to the people who will decide this election. The undecideds don’t care about whether or not McCain looked at Obama, and many of them didn’t even watch. They had better things to do, like work second shift or drink a few brews with their buds while watching the game.
What matters from a debate is not who wins, but who provides effective advertising material to the other campaign to allow themselves to be framed in a way that allows the undecideds to decide. This is why the debates are so risky for Obama, and very low risk for McCain. Obama is the one trying to hide his record, agenda, and positions. The more McCain is able to force Obama to reveal himself, the more McCain gets an advantage. On the other hand, there is very little Obama can force McCain to reveal that is damaging. Obama’s campaign is currently based on blatant lies about McCain’s positions and record. McCain isn’t going to suddenly admit to a core philosophy or position that he doesn’t have.
The reason that Obama lost the debate on Friday is that he gave McCain 8 soundbites saying “John is right”. The McCain campaign wasted no time making use of this gift, since it reveals so much about Obama’s lack of experience. This reinforces the McCain theme “Is Obama ready to lead?”, and uses Obama’s words against him.
Do you doubt me? Let’s go back to 2004 and the aftermath of the debate that Bush “clearly lost”. The one soundbite that came from that debate was Kerry’s “Global Test”. This became the central theme in Bush’s advertising for the next several weeks, and served to frame the perception of the undecideds about Kerry. In the end, they decided they didn’t like the idea of Europe telling us what to do, and voted to re-elect the cowboy.
Make no mistake, McCain won the debate. Not just because he outright won it (unlike Bush in 2004), but because he was the one who walked away with the ability to use the results to frame his opponent in the way he wants.