Obama-McCain Debate: High Stakes

The first presidential debate will take place Friday night. David Broder believes the stakes are very high.

McCain, after enjoying a brief boost from the Republican convention and the unveiling of Sarah Palin, has fallen back into his pre-convention position, lagging slightly behind. Obama still is unable to lock down 270 electoral votes because he is falling well short of the lead that Democrats enjoy generically over the Republican opposition this year.

Obama is known for his eloquence, while McCain often struggles even when given a decent script to read. That creates an expectation that the Democrat ought to dominate when the two men are directly compared.

[…]

McCain began his revival last year with a strong performance in a Republican debate in New Hampshire. Throughout the spring, he was usually at least the second-best man on the stage, outdone by the folksy and humorous Mike Huckabee but clearly more comfortable and assertive than Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and the others.

Other than by Romney, McCain was rarely directly challenged in the way that Obama will test him; the other Republicans paid tribute to his character and treated him with kid gloves. So his struggles to maintain his composure and avoid personal attacks on Romney suggest a potential vulnerability. When Obama bluntly questions McCain’s positions, the Arizona senator may have difficulty staying cool.

On the other hand, Obama did not win the Democratic nomination by dominating the debates. In the early ones, when the stage was full, he lacked the verbal or physical tools to stand out from the crowd. More often than not, it was Hillary Clinton or John Edwards who made the strongest impression on the cameras and the audience. And when Clinton and Obama met one on one, she won most of the confrontations and the subsequent primaries.

The problem with this scoring is that journalists, and elites in general, apply a different system than used by the general public. For example, even though I was a supporter, I thought George W. Bush was clobbered by Al Gore in the debates; the people disagreed. While perhaps the perceptions were colored post hoc by the famous “Saturday Night Live” parodies, most people judge candidates on personality rather than substance. Elites, by contrast, score based on wonkish command of details and crispness of delivery.

Friday’s debate will be on national security, which McCain has sold as his strong suit. While McCain will be graded on a curve on delivery, with Obama’s expectations higher in that regard, the reverse will be true on substance. So long as Obama comes across as competent and likable, he’s fine. McCain is the underdog here and, as the old boxing adage goes, he’s going to need a knockout to win; a tie goes to the champ.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McCain is the underdog here and, as the old boxing adage goes, he’s going to need a knockout to win; a tie goes to the champ.

    Don’t you actually have to win something first to be called the champ?

  2. RW Rogers says:

    Don’t you actually have to win something first to be called the champ?

    Not always. Anyway, he won the Democratic Party nomination didn’t he?

  3. That was more of an undercard fight. And his victory against a tomato can to get into the Senate doesn’t really count for much either.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Don’t you actually have to win something first to be called the champ?

    Obama is leading in the polls both nationally and in the state-by-states. And the strong national sentiment for “change” and advantage for Democrats is much stronger than his own lead over McCain. The recent economic news, fairly or not, has also seriously hurt McCain. So McCain is going to have to win big to put himself back out front.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    More telling in my opinion will be the viewership. There’s a conundrum involved. If the viewership is high, while I think it’s good for the political system overall, does it benefit Obama or McCain? Both Sens. Obama and McCain got record-breaking numbers of viewers for their speeches at their respective conventions. Does this indicate support, people looking for confirmation of their existing biases, or people trying to make a decision?

    If the viewership is low, the result will inevitably be more mediated by the talking heads, whom most people think have a bias towards Obama. Does that mean their opinion will have more or less weight?

  6. RW Rogers says:

    I was already looking forward to hearing the candidates explain their positions WRT Pakistan, but the massive bomb explosion at the Marriott in Islamabad today makes me even more interested. IIRC, one of the candidates has been quite vocal about violating Pakistan’s territorial integrity.

  7. capital L says:

    IIRC, one of the candidates has been quite vocal about violating Pakistan’s territorial integrity.

    Well everybody knows he’s just a warmongerering Bush clone and–oh it’s Obama? Um, Iraq… distraction from Afghanistan… the real war… (are they gone yet?)

  8. teqjack says:

    most people judge candidates on personality rather than substance. Elites, by contrast, score based on wonkish command of details and crispness of delivery.

    Hmm, where have I noticed that effect before? Nationally? Could it be, uh, Kennedy-Nixon debates? I seem to recall R. Millie N. was said to have won on points but J. Fitz K. scored [as a] knockout.

  9. G.A.Phillips says:

    Hmm, where have I noticed that effect before? Nationally? Could it be, uh, Kennedy-Nixon debates? I seem to recall R. Millie N. was said to have won on points but J. Fitz K. scored [as a] knockout.

    Ya but they were both losers so whats the point?

  10. Floyd says:

    If those were conventions[NOT!!]then I guess you could call the coming fiascoes…. debates??[lol]
    No matter, all decisions have been made, it now only comes down to who turns out to vote and who controls the count.

  11. James, the last thing most fighters want to do is have the result come down to the scorecards, since almost anything can happen, and the better fighter does not always win the decision.

    I’m reminded most of the way Roy Jones got jobbed in the Seoul Olympics.

  12. Andrea Jones says:

    The debate is nearly over and I have to say –I think that Barack Obama will be the finest president the U.S. has ever had! He has every quality we could ask for. Very impressive on foreign policy.

    McCain was constantly trumpeting himself as the “experienced” candidate, but Obama points out McCain’s serious errors of judgement and we can’t help seeing his rashness and dishonesty.
    Posted by: Andrea Jones | September 26, 2008 10:33 PM