I’ve read a bunch of analyses of who won Friday night’s debate. Most, though not all, reviews had Sen. McCain winning. Saturday, Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff wrote this post about judging victory. Here’s the section that caught my attention:

Yet most of the early polls I saw indicated that the public viewed Obama as the winner. Why the apparent disconnect? Because, I think, while commentators tried to focus on how well the candidates debated their respective positions, the rest of the audience focused, naturally enough, on how much they liked those positions.

And that’s where those headwinds enter the picture. The ones McCain confronts have to do with unhappiness over the Iraq war and over the state of the economy. Thus, McCain may have hammered Obama over his opposition to the surge, but if voters think the decision to invade Iraq was more consequential than the decisions that finally seem to have enabled us to succeed there, then Obama will still have the edge. Similarly, no matter how well McCain debates the economy (and here his performance was not that strong), the justified perception that his economic views are closer than Obama’s to those of President Bush’s represent a built-in disadavntage.

I’d suggest that there’s another way of judging who wins a debate, specifically, who uses his opponent’s words against him. Less than 5 minutes after Friday’s debate, McCain’s campaign had a video out called John Is Right, highlighting the number of times Sen. Obama said that Sen. McCain was right. This is brilliant because it uses Sen. Obama’s words against him.

Before going further, let’s remember the first Kerry-Bush debate in 2004. After the debate, most people agreed that John Kerry had won the debate on what was supposedly President Bush’s strength, foreign policy. It turned out that winning that night wasn’t enough for Sen. Kerry. Towards the end of the debate, Sen. Kerry used the term “global test.” President Bush beat Sen. Kerry over the head with that phrase every day the rest of the campaign.

Here’s something that Sen. McCain can pound Sen. Obama on mercilessly:

OBAMA: My definition…here’s what I can tell the American people: 95 percent of you will get a tax cut. And if you make less than $250,000, less than a quarter-million dollars a year, then you will not see one dime’s worth of tax increase.

I don’t know how 95% of the American people can get tax cuts based on this Treasury Department document:

Taxpayers who rank in the top 50 percent of taxpayers by income pay virtually all individual income taxes. In all years since 1990, taxpayers in this group have paid over 90 percent of all individual income taxes. Since 2000, this group paid over 96 percent of the total. In fact, in 2005 they were paying 96.9 percent of all individual income taxes.

Unless Sen. Obama is planning on cutting payroll taxes on the bottom 50% of wage earners, it isn’t possible for him to give 95% of American income earners a tax cut. How can Sen. Obama give 95% of Americans tax relief when 50% of Americans pay only 3.1% of the taxes? Here’s another exchange that I’d turn into a video:

LEHRER: But if I hear the two of you correctly neither one of you is suggesting any major changes in what you want to do as president as a result of the financial bailout? Is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA: No. As I said before, Jim, there are going to be things that end up having to be …
LEHRER: Like what?
OBAMA: … deferred and delayed. Well, look, I want to make sure that we are investing in energy in order to free ourselves from the dependence on foreign oil. That is a big project. That is a multi-year project.

I’d put together a video of Sen. Obama’s interview with John Harwood where Sen. Obama said that $4 a gallon gas wasn’t the problem, that the problem arose from it getting that high too quickly. I’d also include Sen. Obama’s outlandish claim that filling our tires and “getting regular tune-ups” would save us as much oil as what we’d get from opening the OCS to drilling. I’d have the narrator ask Sen. Obama when he found this fondness for drilling. I just visited his campaign website and it doesn’t mention drilling. Without drilling, there won’t be any short-term relief at the pump or in home heating bills.

The [headwinds] McCain confronts have to do with unhappiness over the Iraq war and over the state of the economy. Thus, McCain may have hammered Obama over his opposition to the surge, but if voters think the decision to invade Iraq was more consequential than the decisions that finally seem to have enabled us to succeed there, then Obama will still have the edge. Similarly, no matter how well McCain debates the economy (and here his performance was not that strong), the justified perception that his economic views are closer than Obama’s to those of President Bush’s represent a built-in disadavntage.

While it’s true that McCain is confronting Iraq headwinds, Paul doesn’t mention that Sen. Obama is facing the oil headwinds. People are justifiably upset with President Bush’s prosecution of the war but the feelings about the Iraq war aren’t as intense as the anger people feel about the price at the pump or their anxiety about how they’ll heat their homes.

In the days to come, we’ll see how things shift as Sen. McCain highlights Obama’s flip-flops in his stump speeches. That’s when we’ll know who the real winner is.

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6 Responses to “How To Judge Debate Winners & Losers”

  • diogenes says:

    A presidential debate is not a forensics meet. The winner and loser isn’t determined by “style points”.

    The fact is, more undecided voters believe Obama has the better positions on the issues they care about than does McBush. Mirenoff is right on this point. The insta-polls right after the debate had Obama the winner. The Gallup Daily poll today, Sunday (covering Thursday, Friday and Saturday) has Obama up 50% to 42%, and tomorrow’s daily poll will likely be similar, if not even more decisively slanted towards Obama.

    That doesn’t mean Obama has it locked up, or that McBush has no chance of winning. But, if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Obama.

  • Gary Gross says:

    And despite all that, Obama still hasn’t flipped enough states to win. I wonder why.

    Perhaps it’s because it isn’t about “the issues.” Perhaps it’s because voters are focused on a few hugely important issues.

    I remember 1984. A poll came out the day before the election showing more people agreeing Mondale than with Reagan on 11 of the 13 issues. The only issues where Reagan led were the economy & national security, the 2 most important issues of the day.

  • diogenes says:

    “And despite all that, Obama still hasn’t flipped enough states to win.”

    Wrong, again.

    Take a look at fivethirtyeight.com, for example, if you need proof. They’ve got the electoral vote projection at 325.5 Obama, 212.5 McBush.

    Now, I’m with you on the fact that the only meaningful poll is on Nov. 4.

    If the two major issues are again the economy and national security, McBush may be in trouble. He hasn’t and won’t lead in economics, and at the very least, Obama has shown enough people that he can probably handle the job as commander-in-chief, even if many aren’t willing to give im the nod over McBush in that area.

  • Gary Gross says:

    Take a look at fivethirtyeight.com, for example, if you need proof. They’ve got the electoral vote projection at 325.5 Obama, 212.5 McBush.

    fivethirtyeight.com is a joke. For Obama to get to 325 EV’s, he’d have to flip Ohio, Virginia, Colorado & Florida. Obama isn’t buying ads in Florida, which means that they’re writing that state off. He’s competitive in Virginia but the experts (Sabato, Rothenberg & the professor from Emory College whose name I can’t remember) still expect McCain to win.

    Anybody that thinks that religious blue collar voters in Ohio will vote with any regularity for Obama is a blithering idiot.

    Blue collar voters abandoned Obama IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the Wright tapes & his SF fundraising audio. They didn’t return. He lost Kentucky & WVA by 30 points each. He got clobbered in Ohio & Pennsylvania. There’s a better chance that McCain flips Michigan than Obama flips Ohio.

  • Don says:

    As represented by an out of touch candidate so many Republicans find themselves stumped by the inability to throw baseless charges and at best exaggerated facts as in previous elections. The difference is the truth is quickly gathered and sent around the world via the web and read by discerning voters who actually think about issues before they vote. If McCain/Bush were actually confident with their direction for the country they would speak to it, rather than the classic make the Democrate seem evil and risky. Good example is the phrase “Tax and Spend Democrate”. Note that 70% of the National Debt is attributable to Republican presidents who I guess prefer “Borrow and Spend” Which of course is what the whole Financial metdown is all about. Republican turned Independent voting for Obama/Biden not McCain/Bush

  • Gary Gross says:

    Don, Blaming the national debt for the credit meltdown is idiotic. They don’t have anything to do with the other.

    Saying that President Bush & Sen. McCain are carbon copies of the other is repeating the DNC’s talking points.

    As such, I’m not buying your saying that you used to be a Republican, though I’ll buy that you’re voting for the most unqualified presidential candidate in American history.

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