the poll that counts
There is a ugly and annoying trope in American politics: All the politicians are the same; both major parties are the same; nobody ever really says anything different than anyone else; and for debates, nobody ever wins a debate. If you ask people who won the four debates that have happened over the last several weeks, you will frequently get the following responses: 1) “Nobody ever wins those things”; and 2) “Debates don’t matter.”

I promise you this: If during the next presidential election a person or organization of influence gets up and says “Nobody ever really ‘wins’ debates, debates don’t matter, so let’s skip that this time around,” then the very same people I mention in the last paragraph will be up in arms. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is not the case that “nobody ever wins” or “it never matters.” It is the case that we Americans always say these things. But they are almost never true. True, there are no knock-out punches, but why would there be? Why does the press always report “No knock out punch” when there has never, ever been one in an American debate since they were first televised? This is like saying “Well, the Packers Beat the Vikings again, and guess what? No meteors hit the stadium during the game! Isn’t that amazing?!?”

So if nobody ever gets it right, what are we to take away from these debates? That turns out to be more or less true?

What is true is that Barack Obama and Joe Biden kicked Republican Ass in these four debates. In each and every case, the following things happened:

1) As an outcome of the debate, there was no observation of what anyone did that turned into a negative for Obama/Biden. No thing happened, no words uttered, no goof or gaff occurred that became a deficit to the Obama/Biden ticket.

2) As an outcome of the debate, people who paid attention and watched them all can now pass (with a C grade at least) a moderately detailed quiz on the Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin positions on various issues, and can articulate at least some of the differences between the candidates that they probably could not have articulated prior to the debates.

3) In each case, focus groups of independent voters or undecideds showed statistically significant and large shifts from “I don’t know” to Obama/Biden. Some even shifted from “leaning McCain/Palin” to “leaning Obama/Biden.” This is probably meaningfully linked to a shift in the polls that have happened over the same period of time.

4) In each case, McCain or Palin produced words and visuals that have been used against them since.

One could argue that I’m wrong about one or more of these four points, but I’m not. Or at least, not very. Obama/Biden won these debates, and it is quite possible that these debates had the following very important results:

1) The difference between the candidates may have widened enough as a result of the debates to make it impossible for McCain to take the election by cheating, because cheating only gets you a few percent in a given state at most;

2) The candidates’ positions on various issues have been sharpened and clarified so that the political process may be positively enhanced as we go past the election and into the next presidency; and

3) In the case of this particular election cycle, I think we have examined the strategy of negative campaigning more closely and are about to understand that there are two kinds of negative campaigning: i) say negative things about your opponent that are true although possibly arguable vs. ii) say negative things that you totally make up about your opponent. Previously, I really think a lot of people in politics did not distinguish between the effectiveness of the two. Now perhaps people will start to see that they are different. Making shit up can backfire.

Here is the result from what is widely believed to be the most relevant and useful indicator of the outcome of these debates, the CBS uncommitted voter tracking thingie:

Immediately after the debate, CBS News interviewed a nationally representative sample of 638 debate watchers assembled by Knowledge Networks who were “uncommitted voters” – either undecided about who to vote for or who could still change their minds. Fifty-three percent said Obama won the debate, 22 percent said McCain won and another 25 percent thought it was a tie.

Wow. That looks like a knockout to me….

Here is the complete poll, and here is a report on the poll.