Thursday, April 17, 2008

Did the Debate Change Anything?

Rob Shewfelt and I have started an exchange on the debate in the comments to yesterday's electoral college post, and while I included some debate commentary there, the events of last night deserve their own post. The question of the day remains to what extent, if any, did the debate change things in the Democratic battle in Pennsylvania and/or the broader race for the nomination?

In a footnote to yesterday's post I wrote:
"Two things are certain to come up at some point in the ABC debate: Obama's comments and
the Clinton trust poll numbers (since they were from ABC News). I don't know that those two equate, but they will both have something negative to address during this evening's proceedings. Strategically, Obama, in Clinton-esque fashion, has attempted to turn a weakness into a strength by welcoming a debate with John McCain over who is most out of touch. He will more than likely continue with that line of argument tonight. Clinton, on the other hand, may not be able to make the same reversal. Is she on firm enough ground arguing that either Obama or McCain can be trusted less? We will have to wait until tonight to see."

After the debate Rob had this to say:
"She got the question you predicted (on trust) and one of the ones I mentioned (on guns), but she can't complain that he is being pampered by the media. It seems to me that Stephanopolous had a conflict of interest. For years we have heard about the revolving door between government (particularly civil servants) and industry leading to favorable treatment of big business. I think it is time to look at the revolving door between Congress and the Executive branch and network news. It is one thing to be a pundit on election night or a talk show, but it is entirely different being a questioner in a debate. I understand that the frontrunner gets more scrutiny than the runerup, but I think this was the most slanted questioning of a candidate in a debate I can recall.

"Clinton clearly won the debate. Obama looked bad. Clinton looked good when she answered the questions asked, but she may have overplayed her hand when she piled on after Obama stumbled. It will be interesting to see if the debate makes any difference in PA. The trend this year has been the person that gets beat up is the person who does best in the next primary. We'll know more next Wednesday morning."

One thing is for sure in both these comments: We're both taking a "wait and see approach" to this. And given the way this race has gone thus far that's pretty wise. If the 2000 general election hadn't proven most experts' predictions wrong, I'd dub this the "election in which predictions were made to be broken." Maybe I'll settle for the "primary season in which predictions were made to be broken". Nah, too long.

Anyway, here are my first reactions to Rob and the debate:
"I don't know, Rob. Yes, Clinton "won" the debate*, but Obama survived without digging a deeper hole for himself. He is in a position now with his argument of changing the "politics of distraction" that Clinton has been in playing the gender card and crying. He can't overuse it (whether he thinks its the right angle to take or not).

"And while Clinton won, she has to do more than that; she has to change the outlook of the race. And it remains to be seen whether she went beyond just winning last night. My take is that she didn't. Her solid performance was in the policy arena and voters expect her to be good there. Chris Cillizza over at The Fix brought this up in his post-debate reaction. He cites the LA Time/Bloomberg poll of PA, NC and IN voters who perceive Clinton to be the better candidate on policy, but opt for Obama anyway.

"*These proceedings are really wins for McCain. The more time the Democrats spend answering questions about guns, lapel pins and members of the Weather Underground, the more ammunition they willingly hand over to McCain and the "Republican attack machine". Both Obama and Clinton seem to be aware of this, but the fight continues."

Other thoughts? The comments section is open, so have at it FHQ readers and UGA Campaign Discussion Group regulars.


Robert said...

Good points. I basically agree with them except that this really helps McCain. That is certainly conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom has been wrong all year. At the beginning of the year it was clear that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee and that McCain would not be the Republican nominee. The drip, drip, drip of allegations and associations that are plaguing Obama are reminiscent of Willie Horton, invention of the Internet and Swift Boat Veterans ploys in the past that did irreparable damage to Democratic candidates in the past. That trees are the major cause of pollution and bimbogate efforts were largely unsuccessful. Negative ads have been very successful in past elections, but the two main purveyors of these ads this year -- Romney and Clinton -- probably hurt themselves more than they hurt each other. I realize that we are dealing with a very different population in the primaries than in the general election, but if there is a consistent message that has been conveyed by the primary and caucus voters it is that they favor candidates who are willing to work across party lines to solve problems. Remember that the voters to date are more likely to be sharply partisan than the voters who will vote in the general election.

If we do have a McCain/Obama election I think that issues and ideology will be more important than past elections, and that, as I said yesterday, the two most important issues will be the economy and Iraq. If the election gets close, then these other "distractions" will be important, but, if the primaries are an indicator of the general election the party that relies too heavily on partisianship will probably suffer.

Josh Putnam said...

It really helps McCain from the standpoint that he has added ammunition for the fall. How he uses it and how well it goes over are completely different stories. Much of that will be answered by who the Democratic nominee is and how focused that person keeps the electorate on the nature of the times.

Robert said...

Ammunition is good if it is effective and used at the right time. The point I was trying to make is that some things like inventing the Internet and the swift boats stick and can destroy a candidate. Others like the polluting trees and the failure to know who the leader of Pakistan have a short shelf-life and become old news. It is hard to predict which ones will stick and which ones won't, but it seems like the party out of power is more likely to get a pass than the one in power. If you use up your ammunition too early, it can backfire on you. Clinton worked hard to define Obama early, and she failed. I would agree with you that, at this point, what was brought up last night is probably too late to help her. Pat Buchanan made an interesting point last night, however. He said something to the effect that Obama got clobbered in the debate, but that if it doesn't help Clinton then the Republicans need to rethink their whole strategy because it didn't work for her. He said that McCain basically plans to use the same strategy. You could argue that it didn't work because of the candidate and not the strategy, but it could be that Clinton lost her credibility because of the strategy.

Howard Dean (pick-up trucks) and Barack Obama have both articulated, in a very clumsy fashion, a group that they need to target to regain the Democratic minority. If they can figure out how to act on that knowledge rather than ujust to talk about it, the Republicans may be in trouble. If he taps into that frustration he described, then Republican use of this material will be seen as picking on someone who speaks their language. If the talk stays merely theoretical without any grassroots organization, then McCain will be able to use it effectively to paint him as an elitist. Of all of the candidates on either side this year, the one candidate that organized effectively at the grassroots has been Obama.

Josh Putnam said...

Exactly. My ammunition comment was one to clarify my point in the post, not counter yours.

Excellent point about Dean and the trucks comment. That's something I hadn't seen in the discussion of "bittergate". But it certainly fits the elitist narrative. I was going to say that that's something that Obama should have brought up, but that opens the door to a new narrative: Democrats don't know how to talk about this stuff.

And no, McCain's descent last summer killed any grassroots efforts. Obama would have a leg up there.