Obama before: 6.2
Obama after: 7.4
McCain before: 6.4
McCain after: 4.3
This is striking. Prior to the debate this sample of independent voters viewed McCain and Obama similarly on the threshold question. But after... not so much. There is a powerful Kennedy/Nixon dynamic on display, the talking heads aren't discussing it, but the insta-polling is reflecting it. Obama's calm demeanor and simply defusing McCain's assorted attacks are reassuring to a voting public that is looking at these two men and trying to gauge who will take care of them in crisis. Chuck Todd may loathe insta-polls, but in this election season they have been a strong predictor of where the real polls, including his own NBC News/WSJ poll, are heading.
2. If you wanted to score the debate like a boxing match, you could make an argument that McCain won by a few points. However, he needed to put Obama on the canvas, and no one can make the case that he did so. Obama is in position to run out the clock right now, and his main goal was to win on the Presidential aesthetic (check) and avoid the big mistake (check). He didn't engage, didn't try to win points, just parried McCain's blows. He was cautious, but likely appropriately so.
3. McCain may have had the killer retort of the night when he said, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." But here's the problem: as Obama pointed out, he still can't escape the similarities in policy, and the argument might resonate as a summation today if he had been running the "I'm Not Bush" campaign all along instead of the POW/"Country First" brand all while tacking to the right and running a Karl Rove-style campaign.
4. The pundits made a big deal out of McCain snidely laughing off the matter of the women's health exception on the issue of abortion while citing the health of the mother as the core of an extreme "pro-abortion" position. (Once again, McCain was pandering to the extreme flank of his own party with hard line ideology, and in so doing turned off pretty much everyone else.) What was under-discussed was the last line McCain threw in there. He said he had no litmus test for judges on the abortion issue. But then he proceeded to say that he didn't believe any judge who agreed with Roe v. Wade was competent! Simply a litmus test by another name. And Obama made the strongest point on the issue when he exposed the traditional Republican divisive rhetoric when he pointed out that no one is pro-abortion.
5. McCain's constant beating the drum of Republican ideology- small government, low taxes, "rights of the unborn"- are little more than preaching to the converted. Ideological arguments in a time of tangible crisis do not resonate with undecided voters or those with a slight lean. And after eight years of George W. Bush, people no longer want an ideologue. People want a problem solver.
6. Did anyone notice that McCain once again called for an across the board spending freeze, but proposed increased support for at least a half dozen governmental programs? And he continues to say that he'll veto any bill with an earmark as President, yet just voted for a bailout bill with over $100 billion in pork. He continues to display a rank inability to see or communicate nuance in any issue, and is seeking to, as George Will continues to point out, substitute certitude for comprehension.
7. The one policy area where Obama clearly won was on health care, where he laid out in concrete terms what his plan and what McCain's plan would mean to the average consumer. McCain again comes at it from an ideological tack, speciously painting Obama's plan as a form of socialized medicine, and probably even believes that the $5000 tax credit will be enough for everyone- even though independent analysts have debunked the notion repeatedly.
8. Obama's best punch of the night was the one he never took at Sarah Palin. He didn't want that to be the story. The rest of the world has taken care of this for him. People have made up their minds on Sarah Palin. While McCain preaches to his choir, Obama simply enjoys the music.
9. My preferred answer for Obama once William Ayers came up would have been the following: "If we want to discuss our respective associations and boards we served on, John, we can talk about your membership on the board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom. Can we not mutually agree that I don't condone terrorism, you don't condone anti-Semitism, and just get back to work on the issues of the American people?" Obama took the cautious approach and coolly explained his associations and went on. He may have watched a hanging curveball go by, but he has all the runs he needs to win this ballgame. He just needed to avoid the big gaffe, and he did that.
10. Did anyone catch that the description of "Joe The Plumber" must be a plumber who runs a chain of franchises and makes over $250K per year for McCain's argument to mean anything? And once again, an entire debate passes without the words "middle class" escaping McCain's lips. The middle class is the largest segment of the country, the largest source of skilled labor and productivity, and the core of the consumer market- which ultimately provides the foundation of opportunity for the investor class. To run without putting the middle class front and center is like running for school board without talking about how you'll pay for textbooks.
11. I don't want to hear any Republican accusing someone else of attacking the fabric of democracy after 2000. ACORN? Really? I guess when your side does it, it's fighting the good fight but when the other side does it, it's an assault on democracy as we know it.
12. McCain said he repudiates it when anyone in his party crosses the line, yet his own running mate said Barack Obama pals around with terrorists. I must have missed him repudiating Palin somewhere in the defense of his supporters who followed Palin's lead and literally called for Obama to be killed. He could have scored major points had he looked right in the camera (which he had a hard time doing anyway) and said: anyone who would yell such a thing, don't come to my campaign events and I don't want your support- I would rather lose. Instead, astonishingly, in what may well have been the final act of whoring himself out to the far right that he was once known for fighting, McCain actually stepped up and offered a blanket affirmation of his supporters!
Postscript: People I talked to generally found McCain to be a bit sharper in this debate. Yet the insta-polling uniformly showed Obama's biggest win of the season. And looking inside the numbers, massively more respondents indicated they felt McCain was attacking Obama rather than vice versa; people don't think McCain is speaking to their issues. We don't have time, they are saying, for the partisan blood sport of the '90s... a lesson McCain would have done well to learn from the defeat of Hillary Clinton. The insta-poll decisiveness looks eerily similar to June 3, the date of the last Democratic primary, when superdelegates came out throughout the day in a collective "calling" of the race. The insta-poll landslide may be an indication that last night was McCain's Waterloo. Voters gave him three debates to restore their confidence that the guy they admired before the bright lights of the campaign revealed his true colors might still have some life left. But what they saw was a campaign plagued by constant mistakes, devoid of strategy, running in a bygone election with no applicability to the challenges of today, and a candidate quite simply not up to the job. In the end, even through a massive repudiation of the GOP, in the Presidential election voters appear to be choosing not a party, not an ideology, not a set of policies, but actually the man who they think has the capacity to help us work through this mess.