Thursday, September 30, 2004

Kerry Wins!

Kerry won the debate. Objectively speaking, he gained more than Bush as a result of tonight's events. Bush was on the defensive the whole night, and Kerry executed well from a technical point of view - simply put, he scored more points. Partisans will not likely be swayed to defect to either camp, but Kerry did enough to provide independents with an image of leadership and strength. I daresay, he looked presidential.

More importantly, though, Kerry won the war of the body language, the criteria that has traditionally favored Bush. The president appeared nervous, clumsy and there were numerous awkward silences and stutters from the candidate whose strength is supposedly his ease, confidence and down home charm. Instead he looked uncertain at times, and irritated at others. The shots to Bush when Kerry was speaking were unflattering to say the least.

There were moments when Bush shined, particularly the portion where he praised Kerry's family and his career, and when he discussed the widow mourning her soldier husband. During these episodes he looked human, compassionate, congenial. But those brief interludes were exceptions to his demeanor for most of the night.

Substantively, there was some back and forth, but Bush was overly repetitive in his message, repeating phrases and themes over and over, regardless of their pertinence to the question or discussion at hand. Kerry also had his themes that he frequently returned to, but he better responded directly to the essence of the questions. For Bush, there was the "mixed messages" theme, the "hard work" mantra and a healthy dose of staying the course type rhetoric.

It was not very convincing, and I'll tell you why. In 2000, it was easy for Bush to capitalize in the debates because the conventional wisdom in the press corp, as cultivated by his campaign team, was that Gore was stiff, arrogant, condescending and boring. Gore's performance during the debate, with the frequent sighs, smirks and slightly disdainful tone, only served to reinforce this image.

By contrast, the image that the Bush campaign has been hammering away at with Kerry is that he is indecisive, weak, wavering and a flip flopper. During the debate, the opposite came across. Kerry was strong, eloquent, appeared in control and took pains to give decisive positions, even if they required some embellishment. The caricature of Kerry did not hold up as well with Kerry there, in person, to forcefully refute it. Better to rely on the distance of the echo chamber than a face to face confrontation with a skilled debater.

The pundits will quibble over the details in each candidate's responses. The factual inaccuracies will be pored over and dissected. The overall messages will be spun and counterspun. As I said before, neither candidate won over converts with the substance of the debate, yet Kerry clearly did enough to reassure independents leaning his way and win over some middle of the road types. But at the end of the day, on a visceral level, the terrain on which our "debates" are so often decided in the court of public opinion, Kerry came across the winner - and that will serve him well in the weeks leading up to November.

[Update: As I was perusing my hometown installment of Rupert Murdoch's vast conservative media empire, The New York Post, I was struck by the coverage of the debate. According to Murdoch's Post, Kerry won. Of the three person expert panel cited in the lead article, all three gave the night to Kerry. Of the six "ordinary" New Yorkers they polled (not usually "ordinary" in that they are not as liberal as you would expect in New York City) all six gave the night to Kerry. The Post even reported that the post debate polls indicated Kerry was the victor. This is significant. The folks that bring you Fox News apparently didn't even consider the debate close enough to try to disingenuously claim victory. That speaks to the margin of Kerry's triumph.]

[Update II: Even Republican pollster Frank Luntz and his carefully crafted focus groups came to the conclusion, overwhelmingly I might add, that Kerry won the debate. Here is an article detailing the results via Julia from Sisyphus Shrugged:

Democratic challenger John Kerry beat President George W. Bush in their first debate, according to three instant surveys and undecided voters in a focus group run by Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

Instant polls by the Gallup Organization, ABC News and CBS News found Kerry ahead by as much as 16 percentage points on the question of who won the debate. Five of the 18 voters in the focus group said they moved from undecided to supporting Kerry, Luntz said in a press release. None switched to Bush.

Kerry said Bush's decision to invade Iraq was a "colossal error of judgment." Bush countered that Kerry is sending mixed messages to the world after voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq. The 90-minute debate yesterday at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, was the first of three scheduled meetings between the two candidates.

"This was the first time in this campaign that Kerry stood side by side with Bush, and he looked presidential," Luntz said. Swing voters "think he dominated the confrontation."

Luntz, who helped former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republicans gain control of Congress in 1994, said 16 of the 18 voters in his group considered Kerry the winner. Thirteen said they "agreed" more with Kerry than his Republican opponent.]

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