October 8th, 2008

BREAKING NEWS: McCain Appeared Somewhat At a Disadvantage In A Forum That Called For Him To Move About

by Philip Baruth

I still can’t help being astounded at the more than occasional strategic malpractice of the McCain campaign. Not talking about good bets that don’t pay off, but rather structural decisions that time and time again put their candidate at a distinct disadvantage. “Suspending” the campaign to head out and tackle an issue not really susceptible to one-on-one tackling was one such decision. But almost as bad was allowing the media to frame the town-hall format as McCain’s long suit. His strength.

Sure, McCain himself enjoys the format, and with reliably Republican audiences and small venues, he probably shines, at least relative to a large venue and the use of a TelePrompTer.

But they had to know that this would be a very roomy stage, requiring a lot of solo movement in front of the camera. They had to know that their guy is the anti-Sundance Kid, a guy who’s not better in any way when he moves. They had to know it would be a more or less non-partisan crowd, probably not inclined to giggle at jokes rattled quickly off the top of McCain’s head.

They had to know, in short, that after a while the guy would look like Tim Conway on the old Carol Burnett show, who was always blustering about whizzing right over there, whose arms moved really fast, but whose feet moved really, really, really slow.

In their defense, McCain’s people were boxed in: they’d made such a talking point of their guy’s preference for a series of town hall meetings with Obama, as many as they could get, or so we were led to believe, that talking down his ability in the format now would have raised eyebrows.

Still, it was a box of their own making. And all the Obama camp had to do was sit back and nod and promise that their guy would do his best.

That’s not just strategic malpractice on the part of Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt. That borders on politically negligent homicide.

And VDB was loving it.

Late Update, Wednesday, 8:47 am:

Jim writes in with another key metric of success, what Donald Rumsfeld would have called one of the known unknowns about the race now:

Dear VDB,

After the debates I usually watch Lehrer & Co. but got bored so turned to C-Span(not a usual tactic for boredom relief). It was about ten minutes after the debate ended. The McCains had already left the room, which was still full, and the Obamas were working the crowd to the max, looking very relaxed, Barack in an eerily Clintonian way. They were there I think for at least another 20 minutes having many photos with the crowd, cracking jokes etc. I was fascinated and the CSpanners just let the cameras roll, finally taking calls, which I muted.

Very revealing moment.


Late, Late Update, 10:05 am:

The CNN overnight numbers are simply brutal for McCain: Obama won the debate by more than twenty percentage points, he moved undecideds in his favor, he improved his leadership numbers, etc. But this nugget is the beauty part:

“McCain did come out on top in one category that neither candidate wants to win. By a 16-point margin, debate watchers thought the Arizona senator seemed more like a typical politician during the debate.”

Latest Ever Update, 10:35 am:

This stuff will drive you stark staring mad if you let it. The impulse to avoid a breakaway performance or moment in the race, one that puts the spike in the neck-and-neck narrative, is so strong that most journalists can’t bring themselves to call it even if they see it.

Case in point: CNN’s analysis of last night’s debate. How balanced and objective and fair to declare that both men failed to turn the townhall format to their advantage! A universally missed opportunity! If only these candidates weren’t so gosh darned equally thumb-fingered!

But it begins to look increasingly odd as your own outlet is churning out numbers that increasingly give the lie to the entire premise. Paragraph the first:

“Neither candidate had a stellar performance. Each failed to effectively use the town hall format to express compassion for the problems voters are facing.”

Paragraph the second:

“A poll of debate watchers conducted by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation handed Obama a convincing win. Who did the best job in the debate? Obama received 54 percent, compared to the 30 percent who chose McCain. Among debate watchers, Obama also saw his favorable ratings increase by 4 percent — 64 percent from 60 percent — at the start of the debate to when the final question was asked. McCain’s favorable rating held steady at 51 percent. The Republican nominee gained no ground.”

Sure makes you wonder what CNN’s numbers would look like if Obama had managed to use the format to his advantage.

That might have been what the smart boys down at CNN call a “game-changer” even.