Barack Obama, Citizenship, Elections, Ethics, Intellectual Honesty, John McCain, Liars Lies and Lying, News and Current Events, Obligations to Society, People, Politics, Truth, Values

Obama Won the Debate, But Who will Win the Spin?

(PLEASE NOTE: Folks looking for poll information on who won the Second Presidential Debate should go here.)

Spin, we are told, is a word that comes to us from the public relations industry and means, “…a heavily biased portrayal in one’s own favor of an event or situation…”.  It’s a useful word.

The importance of spin can be clearly seen in the 2000 presidential debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush.  Snap polls taken immediately before and after the first debate indicated Gore had won in the eyes of the voters.  But the GOP quickly went to work spinning the story the debate proved Gore was “dull, boring, and elitist”.  The GOP spin was so effective, polls taken only three days after the first polls showed a flip-flop in public opinion from “Gore won” to “Gore lost”.

It seems possible the same thing might happen in 2008.

So far, the most reliable information we have from snap polls and focus groups indicates Obama won Friday’s debate in the eyes of the voters — albeit perhaps narrowly.  However, it seems a slight majority of the pundits — including many allegedly neutral pundits — are today very busy spinning the story the debate was either a tie, or even a loss for Obama.

Now if those pundits have their way, then within a few days we should see a flip flop in public opinion — from the notion that Obama won to the notion that Obama and McCain either tied or that Obama lost.

Over the years, I’ve gotten the strong impression many of our pundits rationalize away any assertation they have a responsibility to be truthful. There are many Bill O’Reillys in America, but damn few Bill Moyers.

So let’s take a look at what a few of those pundits are saying. David Broder, who is sometimes called “the dean of Washington pundits”, writes for this Sunday’s papers:

“There were no knockout blows in the first presidential debate of the fall, but John McCain out-pointed Barack Obama often enough to encourage his followers that he can somehow overcome the odds and deny the Democrats the victory that has seemed to be in store for them.”

No mention there of the common people having any say in who out-pointed who, nor even a source to back Broder’s claim that he knows McCain’s followers felt encouraged.  Methinks Broder is a bit old — as in pre-scientific.  Perhaps he still uses sheep entrails to divine what the public thinks.

Byron York, who is the National Review’s White House correspondent, also managed to accomplish the difficult and challenging feat of deciding who won the debate without first studying public opinion.  Instead, he is able to divine that Obama lost — because Obama was nice!

Even John Dickerson over at Slate, an apparently intelligent man who unlike our first two pundits is actually scientifically literate enough to know better, somehow has got the notion he can divine who won the debate without bothering to study who the voters think won the debate.  It is surprising that he hasn’t done his homework and is only guessing.

The odd thing here is that so many pundits wanted to simply guess who won the debate — when at least some hard evidence for who won the debate was readily available minutes after the debate ended.

Most notably, a CBS News / Knowledge Networks poll was taken immediately after the debate (.pdf).  But there was also a less rigorous (and therefore less accurate) snap poll by CNN / Opinion Research Corporation.  And last, there were at least four focus groups — convened by Democracy Corps, CBS, Fox, and an unnamed “major Democratic entity“.

With all that information floating around, why would anyone guess?

So did Obama really win the debate in the eyes of the voters?  Apparently, he did.  Consequently, it seems the real question isn’t whether he won, but instead by how much did he win (more or less narrowly) and in what way(s) did he win (see below).

One clue as to how those two questions should be answered comes from the Democracy Corps focus group, which consisted of 45 voters with overall conservative leanings:

A look at the underlying numbers shows that Obama made important gains that could endure through Election Day. These undecided voters had a strong positive reaction to Obama on a personal level. Before the debate, just 40 percent viewed Obama positively, but this skyrocketed to 69 percent after the debate – a remarkable 29-point gain that left him more personally popular than McCain despite this group’s conservative leanings. He also made large strides on being seen as independent, from 44 percent to 65 percent. And in head-to-head match ups against McCain, Obama made significant gains on who “shares your values” and is “on your side.”

The CBS News / Knowledge Networks poll is still more revealing.

Immediately after the debate, CBS News interviewed a nationally representative sample of nearly 500 debate watchers assembled by Knowledge Networks who were “uncommitted voters” – voters who are either undecided about who to vote for or who say they could still change their minds. 39% of these uncommitted debate watchers said Obama won the debate. 24% said McCain won, and another 37% thought it was a tie.

The poll has a margin of error of ± 4%, which means there is no statistically significant difference between the size of the group who thought Obama won and the size of the group who thought Obama tied.  But there is a statistically significant difference between both groups and the size of the smaller group who thought McCain won.

One of the most telling stats, however, involves how the debate shifted the uncommitted voter’s opinions of McCain and Obama.  Here are the questions and the percentages of voters who gave each answer:

Q3. After tonight’s debate, has your opinion of John McCain:

Changed for the better (32%)
Changed for the worse (21%)
Not changed (47%)

Q4. After tonight’s debate, has your opinion of Barack Obama:

Changed for the better (46%)
Changed for the worse (8%)
Not changed (46%)

Allow me to point out two things here.  First, the percentage of voters whose opinion of Obama changed for the better (46%) is significantly higher than the percentage of voters whose opinion of McCain changed for the better (32%).  Second, note the percentage of voters whose opinion of McCain changed for the worse — it’s almost three times more than the percentage of voters whose opinion of Obama changed for the worse.

Both trends are a common pattern across the CBS and CNN polls and the focus groups.  Obama both gained more in popularity with the voters and he did less damage to himself with the voters than did McCain.

The Iraq war was the one area in which McCain outperformed Obama.  The percentage of voters who thought McCain knew what to do in Iraq increased by 12%, but the percentage of voters who thought Obama knew what to do in Iraq stayed statistically the same.

Last, when asked whether Obama and McCain were each prepared to become president, the debate did nothing to change the opinions of the voters that McCain was prepared to become president.  But Obama saw a dramatic 16% increase in the percentage of voters who thought he was prepared to become president.  Given that he convinced so many uncommitted voters he was presidential material, the 97 minute debate was clearly a success for Obama.

For all those reasons and others, it seems safe to assume the debate in most ways helped Obama more than it helped McCain.  Nevertheless, I still expect to see at least a slight majority of the pundits continue yapping about how the debate was a tie — or even an Obama loss.  Some days, I think it is so much more human nature to be wrong than to be right.

But for whatever reason the pundits insist the debate was a tie or a loss for Obama, they are both playing into the hands of the GOP spin machine and doing their readers a disservice.

So who will win the spin this time around?  Will it be a replay of 2000 when Gore won the debate only to loose it again after the GOP spin machine kicked in?  Or will Obama — and something closer to the truth — prevail? What do you think?

FURTHER REFERENCES AND READING:

Complete Footage: The First Presidential Debate

On Strategy and Tactics

Poll: Obama Out Performed McCain in Debate

The Next Day, A New Debate on Who Won

Why Voters Thought Obama Won (And Why Pundits Didn’t Get It)

RELATED POSTS ON THIS BLOG:

Some Impressions of the First Obama – McCain Debate

7 thoughts on “Obama Won the Debate, But Who will Win the Spin?”

  1. Actually, it is an odd question to ask, isn’t it, Webs. And for more than one reason. For instance: It seems the spin can be more influential than the debate itself some years.

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  2. I’m nearly astounded that apparently more people thought McCain knows what to do in Iraq now and the Obama doesn’t so much.

    What exactly did McCain say he would do? He just kept saying the surge worked and that Obama had been wrong about that. As far as I am concerned, the surge was only minimally responsible for improved/reduced levels of violence. The decision of many Sunni leaders to buy into cooperation was more of a factor.

    McCain doesn’t have a clue as to how to build Iraq now. I grant that Obama did not put forward a detailed plan to build, and I wish that he had. But if I had to bet on which one was better equipped to facilitate the rebuilding …

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  3. Guilty as charged! In fairness, though, my blog post was written drunk at 4AM, and my readership is about 80 people on a good day, and most of them find me by googling “boobs”. I think I would at least read a poll or two if I were about to proclaim a “winner” to millions of viewers.

    It’s bizarre to boil down leadership debates to a “winner” and a “loser”. In multi-party democracies, debates are an opportunity for candidates to put their policies forward and answer challenges as to whether they would be effective. It gives the public a chance to see which candidate best represents their own views. Not so much emphasis is put on proclaiming a “winner” because you’re comparing apples, bananas, pears, star fruit and oranges. Some orange lovers might switch to pears if the orange in question looks a bit over-ripe in a debate, but only because they can’t stand star fruit under any circumstances.

    All this is a roundabout way of saying the US should open up debates to any candidate with higher than, say 5% public support. Canada has a Green party candidate participating tonight with 7 %…

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  4. Good points about winners and loosers, Alceste! Like you, I would like to see viable third parties in this country. The two party monopoly is doing us no good.

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