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September 28, 2008 4:39 PM

Making that all important emotional connection

Posted by Richard Wagoner

domke.JPGUniversity of Washington professor David Domke, an expert on the intersection of faith and politics, writes today about the first McCain-Obama debate.

By David Domke

Presidential debates are tricky things.

For one thing, they present an artificial setting: average citizens never engage in formal debates, and if elected neither do political leaders. Second, audiences are present, but they often aren't allowed to applaud, boo, or do most anything except sit quietly. Third, candidates must stand by while someone else criticizes them repeatedly. Who would do well at that? Finally, all of this is live, on-camera, with no commercial breaks. There is no hiding anything, as George H. W. Bush (checking his watch) and Al Gore (heavy sighs) learned to their detriment in past elections.

Not surprisingly, therefore, pundits and reporters often are all over the board in their impressions of debate performances. Consider some reactions after Friday's presidential debate, the first in the 2008 election.

On one side, Roger Simon of Politico said: "John McCain was very lucky that he decided to show up for the first presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., Friday night. Because he gave one of his strongest debate performances ever." Similarly, highly respected Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen said, "The only good news for Obama is that any pain from this debate is likely to be short-lived."

On the other side, Joe Klein of Time said, "Obama emerged as a candidate who was at least as knowledgeable, judicious and unflappable as McCain on foreign policy ... and more knowledgeable, and better suited to deal with the economic crisis and domestic problems the country faces." Others similarly declared Obama the winner.

In general, though, punditry reaction missed the two most important things that happened Friday - both of which were distinctly favorable for Obama. Don't take my word for it: it's what public reaction to the debate is telling us.

In every systematic analysis of public response to the debate, results suggest Obama won. A night-of-the-debate CBS poll of undecided voters showed it, a CNN poll did too. Focus groups by Time, Media Curves, conservative-leaning Fox News, and liberal-leaning pollster Democracy Corps showed it. And a Gallup poll released on Sunday showed it.

Why?

First, Barack Obama was uncowed in being on the same stage with John McCain. Newcomer Obama could have wilted standing next to a former POW military hero, a lion of the Senate who has passed several pieces of landmark congressional legislation. Obama didn't appear intimidated or, conversely, over-compensate with arrogance. In fact, Obama was so comfortable that when he agreed with McCain, he commended his opponent's answers with statements such as "Senator McCain is right."

These words were jumped on by pundits, who said Obama was too generous to McCain. The McCain camp immediately put out an ad showing Obama's "he's right" comments. These reactions all missed something deeper: Obama didn't come off as a sycophant; he had the feel of a man confident enough to offer credit sometimes to his opponent, an unusual move in today's macho political culture.

McCain took a different tack. He didn't look once at Obama, didn't mention him by first name, and several times called Obama "naive" or "inexperienced." It turned off political independents. I watched the debate on CNN, which included instant reactions from a focus group at the bottom of the screen, and every time McCain harshly criticized Obama, the reactions went negative. Every single time. Obama's respectful confidence played much better than McCain's approach, which came off - whether intentional or not - as dismissive and contemptuous.

Time's focus group of undecided voters in St. Louis told us this:

McCain was seen as the more negative of the two - by 7 points before the debate and by 26 points after. The audience did not like it when he went after Obama for being "naive" or used his oft-repeated "what Senator Obama doesn't understand" line. When the two clashed directly in the second half of the debate, with Obama repeatedly protesting McCain's characterization of his statements or positions, the voter dials went down. Voters appear to have judged McCain too negative in those encounters and Obama more favorably.

Second, Obama connected with voters. Within the first five minutes of the debate he said "[W]e've had years in which the reigning economic ideology has been what's good for Wall Street, but not what's good for Main Street," and "[U]nless we are holding ourselves accountable day in, day out, not just when there's a crisis for folks who have power and influence and can hire lobbyists, but for the nurse, the teacher, the police officer, who, frankly, at the end of each month, they've got a little financial crisis going on. They're having to take out extra debt just to make their mortgage payments. We haven't been paying attention to them."

That's Obama's version of Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" and George W. Bush's "I'm a regular guy." More professorial to be sure for Obama, but the words hit home. It's been an approach that has flummoxed Obama for some time, but he seems to have found a new voice since the Wall Street crisis hit.

In Fox News' focus group, two Nevadans interviewed on-camera who were impressed by Obama said this: "He cared about the average person and he got to me," and "He seemed to care about everyone in America." In the television age, the ability to convey empathy is the single most-important attribute in presidential debates - one that is far more important than the exhibition of knowledge, something that Republicans have known for years but Democrats have tended to ignore.

James Fallows of The Atlantic, and former editor of U.S. News & World Report, puts it this way: "Emotional messages, which are variants on 'how do I feel about this person?', are all that matter in presidential debates. Issues discussions are significant mainly to the extent they shape these impressions."

In its post-debate poll, CNN asked which candidate "was more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you?" Fully 62 percent said Obama, compared to 32 percent for McCain. And Time's focus group showed this: "Both candidates saw their net favorability ratings rise over the course of the evening. McCain started off with a 22-point net and gained 9 points. But Obama went from a 6-point net favorability to plus-45, a shift of 39 points that placed him higher than McCain at the end of the debate (69 percent versus 62 percent."

Plus-39 favorability in one night? It looks like maybe Obama did learn something in that much-publicized meeting with Bill Clinton a couple weeks ago.

David Domke, a former newspaper journalist, is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Domke also has worked with Democratic Party leaders in the Northwest to understand the dynamics of modern political campaigns. His latest book, "The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America," was published in January. He can be reached at domke@u.washington.edu.


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