In the First Debate, Who Was More Persuasive?

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In the First Debate, Who Was More Persuasive?

September 28, 2008 Politics 7

Like much of America, we watched the first of three presidential debates on Friday night. And we’ve heard a lot of conversation about it over the weekend. I’ve been asked repeatedly for my opinion, so here it is. I give points to both sides, and I think the net result is a tie, though Obama did better at behaving Presidential (authoritative, likable, reciprocal), and McCain did better at scoring points.

What Obama Did Right:

Barack Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of the foreign policy challenges facing the country. In what many considered to be his weakest area coming into the debates, he showed viewers that he understands our nation’s place in the world, and the consequences of the choices we make in our foreign policy. Style wise, he was more likeable than he might have been (with his tendency to sound like a college professor) and he was consistent in two ways – with his own statements throughout the debate, and with expectations people have of someone seeking the office of the Presidency.

Obama was more comfortable to watch than McCain. He came across as reasonable, intelligent, and capable.

What McCain Did Right:

First, McCain showed up. It would have been a major mistake for him to be missing in action at this debate, which was a real possibility based on his statement last Wednesday that he’d skip the debate unless the Bush proposed Bailout legislation was completed in time. And McCain kept hammering home a few bullet points. He began more than a few of his statements by branding Obama as ‘not getting it,’ or ‘lacking experience.’ On a strictly emotional level, this kind of consistency builds up an idea in the mind of viewers, and each new pass at it reinforces the idea. By the end of the debate, the point has been made and he no longer needs to say it for the idea to linger anyway. How did he come across? See below (what McCain did wrong).

What Obama Did Wrong:

Obama made the terrible error of saying “John is right,” several times throughout the debate. One never concedes that the opponent is right, unless he intends to use that as a setup for saying, “but here’s how he’s wrong.” The net result of his repeating these words is that by the end of the debate, the two messages left to voters are, “Obama is inexperienced. And John is right.”

Obama did manage to use a ‘rule of threes’ on John being wrong about Iraq, and gave the memorable line that “John, you talk about Iraq like the war started in 2007, when it actually started in 2003”, but he only did this once. It would have been far more effective to have made this his mantra throughout the debate.

Obama began too many of his opening statements with verbal hesitancy. He course corrected quickly, so it wasn’t as noticable as it might have been. He spent too much time talking about the past, without articulating the values that would govern his presidency in the future. He also left numerous opportunities on the table to point out the inconsistencies in his opponent’s record. On torture, on the environment, and on Iraq, Obama failed to make the case that McCain’s so called ‘maverick’ qualities put him all over the map on numerous issues, which would have called his judgment more clearly into focus for voters.

Obama also failed to rattle McCain. This to me was his biggest failing in the debate. McCain stayed on script and Obama let him. If ever there was a chance to expose McCain’s reputed foul temper, it passed right on by in this debate. Obama would be wise to spend a little time thinking about how to throw off his opponent in the next two debates if he wants to win over new voters to his side. It can’t be that hard, because McCain’s grandstanding on the bailout legislation, flip flopping on important issues, and poor pick in Palin are all fair game that deserve to be highlighted in order to give voters a chance to make an informed decision that will effect their future for a long time to come.

What McCain Did Wrong:

I still can’t understand why McCain was unable to make eye contact with Obama. It seemed petulant, rude, and the opposite to the quality of leadership that McCain claims to have that would allow him to reach across the aisle. It also gave me the idea that if he had looked at Obama, it would have thrown him off script, because I suspect that his moderate tendencies, placed on hold throughout this presidential quest, would have surfaced in a moment of person-to-person contact with his opponent.

McCain also seemed locked into giving certain answers regardless of what the questions were, a troubling illustration of inflexibility in thought and action that actually increases the association voters might make with the Bush administration.

This was particularly obvious early on in the debate, an important moment since judgments tend to made early on. When asked about the bailout, he started talking about earmarks. Obama was able to point out that $18 billion in earmarks is important, but not as important as $300 billion in tax cuts and $700 billion in government bailouts.

McCain smiled and chuckled whenever Obama spoke. That same kind of behavior didn’t go over well with voters when Gore did it in 2000, and I’m guessing it didn’t go over well with voters this time around, either. McCain filibustered in rambling answers on several of the questions, and several of the opportunities for back and forth.

McCain came across as a tense, surly, rude and petulant guy, not flexible, not thoughtful, and not authentic.

What Happens Next?

I think the debate is therefore a tie. It was unlikely to persuade anyone to think differently about either candidate, though it is possible that a few might have seen Obama in a better light because of his authenticity and willingness to treat his opponent with respect.

The real contest is coming up, between the shy and wilting flower that is Sarah Palin (at least that’s the way McCain’s campaign has handled her…keeping her away from the press so she doesn’t sound any more ignorant than she already has) and the experienced but verbally agressive Joe Biden, whose penchant for saying the wrong thing and having to apologize later is well known. It should be more fun to watch, more exciting, with more fireworks, and more potential to persuade undecided voters than anything we saw on Friday night.

As to the main contenders for the title and position, I’m guessing that at least one of them is reviewing the tape, noticing the missed opportunities, and rethinking their strategy for dealing with the next two debates.

What did you think of the first debate? I’d love to hear your comments.

be well



7 Responses

  1. J.D. Meier says:

    Great recap. I like your precision. Here’s my favorites:
    – reasonable, intelligent, and capable.
    – this kind of consistency builds up an idea in the mind of viewers, and each new pass at it reinforces the idea.
    – One never concedes that the opponent is right, unless he intends to use that as a setup for saying, “but here’s how he’s wrong.”
    – a troubling illustration of inflexibility in thought and action
    tense, surly, rude and petulant guy, not flexible, not thoughtful, and not authentic.

    Are there meta-level patterns at play that have to do with expectations and cross-expectations? For example, which matters more … whether you look the part, or how you play the game?

  2. Hi J.D., thanks for the comment!

    I think that the meta pattern at play is that people tuning in to this debate see or hear what they want to see or hear. We make decisions emotionally, and then justify them later (if at all) So for the vast number of people watching this debate, nothing has changed, and their biases have been, to some degree, reinforced. I have heard from a few people on the left that they were surprised McCain could hold his own the way he did. That’s because of all the age-related jokes of which he’s been the butt. They expected him to stammer and sputter, and instead, he stayed on message. And I’ve heard from people on the right that they were surprised at Obama’s ability to think on his feet, and how well-versed he was on foreign affairs. It’s the people in the middle who are sorting through all this. For the rest, it’s mostly entertainment (in our case, troubling entertainment, because the issues our country is facing are so BIG and POTENTIALLY DESTRUCTIVE!) And that’s where gaffes come in. If someone does something you’re not expecting, the incongruity of it, the inconsistency of it, will most certainly draw attention. And in that moment, you might change your mind.

    That was Obama’s missed opportunity. He was so cordial, so willing to grant concessions. He actually assisted McCain in staying on message. McCain, on the other hand, has done a brilliant job of throwing Obama’s campaign off by violating expectations. But in the debate, there was none of it. McCain was completely predictable. Obama was, for me, the big surprise. I really thought he had way more opportunity than he used. McCain used every opportunity he had.

    I think the last debate will most certainly be the most telling.


  3. I support McCain, but I agree with your analysis, much to the chagrin of fellow conservatives.

    Actually, watching it without anyone else’s feedback I thought Obama won slightly. Not on substance, but on beating expectations.

    McCain could have destroyed Obama by tying the current financial crisis right around the Dems neck, in particular Dodd and Frank (also Obama with his much larger Fannie and Freddie donations and most liberal voting record in the Senate), but he either wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the timeline to do so or he hesitated for an abundance of caution not to appear to be laying blame during a time of crisis.

    This second one is more likely to my mind since McCain was arguing for more oversight and regulation in 2005 (despite him generally being for less regulation) just like the Bush administration did in 2003, both times stymied by the Democrats.

    Anyway, this is substance, not delivery. Delivery you’re bang on. The debate was more or less a draw and I think McCain was expected to do better than that.

    He did, however, knock Obama around a lot on foreign policy after a mediocre start. The public, of course, will have watched the start in larger numbers, hence the slight majority public perception that Obama won.

  4. Chris, thank you for your comment!

    Yeah, McCain did knock Obama around a lot on foreign policy, and Obama just took the punches for the most part, shrugged them off, and went back to tying McCain to Bush. Seemed to me that both candidates avoided throwing serious punches on the economy. And I think the reason it didn’t turn into a brawl is that in a finger pointing game, there’d be no end to it.


  5. J.D. Meier says:

    >We make decisions emotionally, and then justify them later (if at all)
    You hit a key point. What’s the most powerful way to counteract this when you need to? (my most effective approach has either been “surprising data” or more importantly “social proof” — use the system to educate)

  6. The only antidote that I know to use in the presence of my own knee jerk reactions is critical thinking. Ironically, that’s unlikely to happen in an emotional moment unless you’ve conditioned yourself to breathe and restore oxygen to the brain AS a knee jerk reaction! I’ve learned to do this pretty well. Feel a strong emotion, breathe. Keep breathing until the information gates I write about in my book become obvious to me.

    When others are having knee jerk reactions which they’ve mistaken as legitimate positions, the temptation is to write them off as idiots and fools. (Saw a blog today in which a guy is against Obama because “He’ll take away your guns and destroy the Constitution!”) But if you think there’s a chance to make a difference (and there may not be…some people, like the guy in this gun example, don’t just live on the edge, they live way OVER the edge in crazy town where inside is out and up is down…I don’t have the time or inclination to go to crazy town, ever) this is where persuasion comes in. Realize that what you’re hearing from people, particularly when it comes to politics these days, isn’t necessarily based on clear thinking, but instead represents the successful manipulation of their innate biases by compliance professionals. Then draw them deeper into their own thinking, until you find that point of leverage where the introduction of ‘surprising data’ as you put it might have some influence.

    I recall a conversation with a life long Democrat who voted for Bush in two elections specifically because Bush was the Pro-Life candidate. He then began looking for other evidence about Bush to support his initial decision, and left out any competing data that would have caused the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. His politics moved to the right in order to be consistent with his vote for Bush based on this single issue. He’s a good person, and I appreciate the power of his feelings on this issue (though it’s not my issue.) I decided, out of curiosity, to draw him out about his pro-life feelings, which were very strong, and find out what it all meant to him, what made it so important.

    And at some point in that process of drawing him out (the exact moment escapes me, but it was about 8 minutes in to the conversation) I asked him how he felt about military abortion. He looked at me in a very confused way. I explained, “You know, where our military action results in bombing to death 100,000 civilians in pursuit of a handful of terrorists or dictators, and some of those civilians are pregnant. Is that kind of abortion acceptable to you?”

    He didn’t know how to respond to that idea in that moment. It’s a shocking reality that dropping bombs kills mothers and babies. I then told him that “I think life is worth protecting. This is why I think military action has to be the court of last resort, though I do think there’s unfortunately still a time for it. For example, if a country attacks us, or harbors people who have attacked us, there is no question in my mind that we have the right to defend ourselves and our citizens. If a country is attacking other countries who are our friends and to whom we have given our word to stand by them, I am certain that we have an obligation to defend them. But my love for life is why I was and am against the war in Iraq.”

    Then I put a little challenge in front of him. “Maybe you know otherwise, but as far as I can tell, the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war is ANTI-LIFE, and has no track record of being good for the survival of humanity. Well, now that we’ve solved all the world’s problems…” Then I changed the subject.

    A few months later, Katrina happened. I witnessed malfeasance, cronyism, neglect and corruption of the worst sort. Some of it could be explained away. But most of it, in my opinion, was a testament to the failure of my government to respond to a crisis in a reasoned and responsible way. I asked my friend, as if we were still having the previous conversation, “Hey, I have to ask you, what about abortion by negligence? Is that acceptable to you?”

    (BTW, circumstances have now changed, and i would not necessarily say the same things in order to arrive at the same result. Bush has provided plenty of other examples of anti-life policy that is incongruous with all the pro-life assertions.)

    I think you get my drift. I had an agenda. I sought to persuade him to quit supporting Bush because he was pro-life, and notice the larger patterns of the Bush presidency as they relate to life on earth. I know he’s unable to think the same way now that he thought before I started asking my innocent questions.

    I think if the issue was our freedom and constitution, again introducing ‘surprising data’ would not be that hard to do. Or if the issue was our national security, AGAIN I think it would be a pretty simple matter to introduce ‘surprising data’ (I have fallen in love with your terminology, JD!)

    In the Insider’s Guide To The Art of Persuasion, I provide a roadmap into dealing with positions that make the difference between making no difference and making a difference. I wrote it because I got tired of watching good people feel helpless instead of engaging in real discussion about real issues that effect all of us now and our kids in the future.

    best wishes,

  7. Just got this in my inbox. I think it’s interesting to read how a conservative was persuaded to support Obama.

    Wick Allison, Former Publisher of the National Review, Endorses Obama
    My party has slipped its moorings. It’s time for a true pragmatist to lead the country
    By Wick Allison, Editor In Chief,

    THE MORE I LISTEN TO AND READ ABOUT “the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate,” the more I like him. Barack Obama strikes a chord with me like no political figure since Ronald Reagan. To explain why, I need to explain why I am a conservative and what it means to me.

    In 1964, at the age of 16, I organized the Dallas County Youth for Goldwater. My senior thesis at the University of Texas was on the conservative intellectual revival in America. Twenty years later, I was invited by William F. Buckley Jr. to join the board ofNational Review. I later became its publisher.

    Conservatism to me is less a political philosophy than a stance, a recognition of the fallibility of man and of man’s institutions. Conservatives respect the past not for its antiquity but because it represents, as G.K. Chesterton said, the democracy of the dead; it gives the benefit of the doubt to customs and laws tried and tested in the crucible of time. Conservatives are skeptical of abstract theories and utopian schemes, doubtful that government is wiser than its citizens, and always ready to test any political program against actual results.

    Liberalism always seemed to me to be a system of “oughts.” We ought to do this or that because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of whether it works or not. It is a doctrine based on intentions, not results, on feeling good rather than doing good.

    But today it is so-called conservatives who are cemented to political programs when they clearly don’t work. The Bush tax cuts—a solution for which there was no real problem and which he refused to end even when the nation went to war—led to huge deficit spending and a $3 trillion growth in the federal debt. Facing this, John McCain pumps his “conservative” credentials by proposing even bigger tax cuts. Meanwhile, a movement that once fought for limited government has presided over the greatest growth of government in our history. That is not conservatism; it is profligacy using conservatism as a mask.

    Today it is conservatives, not liberals, who talk with alarming bellicosity about making the world “safe for democracy.” It is John McCain who saysAmerica’s job is to “defeat evil,” a theological expansion of the nation’s mission that would make George Washington cough out his wooden teeth.

    This kind of conservatism, which is not conservative at all, has produced financial mismanagement, the waste of human lives, the loss of moral authority, and the wreckage of our economy that McCain now threatens to make worse.

    Barack Obama is not my ideal candidate for president. (In fact, I made the maximum donation to John McCain during the primaries, when there was still hope he might come to his senses.) But I now see that Obama is almost the ideal candidate for this moment in American history. I disagree with him on many issues. But those don’t matter as much as what Obama offers, which is a deeply conservative view of the world. Nobody can read Obama’s books (which, it is worth noting, he wrote himself) or listen to him speak without realizing that this is a thoughtful, pragmatic, and prudent man. It gives me comfort just to think that after eight years of George W. Bush we will have a president who has actually read the Federalist Papers.

    Most important, Obama will be a realist. I doubt he will taunt Russia, as McCain has, at the very moment when our national interest requires it as an ally. The crucial distinction in my mind is that, unlike John McCain, I am convinced he will not impulsively take us into another war unless American national interests are directly threatened.

    “Every great cause,” Eric Hoffer wrote, “begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” As a cause, conservatism may be dead. But as a stance, as a way of making judgments in a complex and difficult world, I believe it is very much alive in the instincts and predispositions of a liberal named Barack Obama.

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