During the past week I’ve been mildly amused at the consternation expressed by so many pundits that the public overwhelmingly and quickly identified Obama the winner of the first presidential debate.
As the conservative Ross Douthat complained yesterday:
I saw the debate as an evening in which the policy differences between the two men were muted, and McCain was able to steer the conversation around, again and again, to his experience and record, which on paper is easily his biggest advantage over Obama. If this election were being decided on the candidates’ resumes alone, independent of ideological considerations or the state of the country, McCain would win in a walk, and so a debate in which he kept Obama on the defensive and flaunted his experience at every turn seemed, to me at least, like a best-case scenario for the McCain campaign.
It continues to amaze me how poorly some high-profile political commentators understand politics. The electorate doesn’t vote for presidents based on their resumes, as a few moments reflection on recent history would show. Nor do voters necessarily reward candidates who keep attacking their rivals or who return repeatedly to the same talking points.
How is it possible for anybody following this election closely to have failed to notice that McCain himself has cast it as a referendum on Barack Obama’s suitability? That McCain sought to paint Obama in extreme terms as naive, ignorant, and lacking any relevant experience? So by McCain’s choice it was going to come down to whether or not Obama appeared to be those things when voters got a good look at him during these debates. It would have taken really extreme ineptitude on Obama’s part to make McCain’s caricature seem credible. Instead, Obama demonstrated within the first few minutes of the first debate that, far from being a nitwit, he’s actually well informed and competent. It didn’t really matter what McCain had to say at that stage about particular issues. He’d gambled everything on his ability to trivialize the national debate and now lost badly.
The denouement to McCain’s risky strategy has been in the cards for at least 4 months. How could anybody fail to see that Obama would gain by rising above McCain’s highly exaggerated charges?
All that is by way of introduction to a result of the debate that I did not entirely expect. The latest Pew survey has a wealth of interesting demographic information about voter attitudes toward McCain, Obama, and their running mates. I commented earlier today about one trend that continues as expected: voters are increasingly underwhelmed with Sarah Palin’s readiness. Around half of voters, and half of Independents, now say she’s unqualified to be president. Her unfavorable ratings are way up during the last two weeks among nearly every demographic except Republicans…and voters over 65 of age.
Which brings me to the results that I find most striking in the Pew survey. Obama lost ground during the last two weeks almost alone among older voters, especially older white voters. The debate had almost no effect on their attitudes toward Obama even though nearly every other demographic was impressed with his performance.
How impressed? His 2% lead over McCain in mid-September grew to 7% by Sept. 29. Obama made significant gains in a range of positive attributes voters associate with him as well as in assessments of his leadership on various issues.
Much of this has to be attributed to the debate. Obama made essentially no gains in his ratings since mid-September on these issues among voters who did not watch the debate. But among those who did see the debate, he made considerable gains across the board. McCain, by contrast, made no gains among debate-watchers.
However there’s a glaring demographic distinction to be made. When debate-watchers were asked whether the two candidates did an excellent/good job, younger voters gave Obama double-digit leads. But voters over 65 gave Obama only a 1% lead over McCain.
That’s reflected in their voting intentions. Obama made gains during the last two weeks among nearly every other demographic (including Republicans), or at least just about held steady. However he lost a very significant 6% of his already small support among elderly whites (now 28% for Obama, 54% for McCain). There’s no other comparable group where Obama lost this much ground during the last two weeks – except among people earning less than $30K per year. But the latter still support Obama overwhelmingly.
I‘d be interested to know what others think is going on. More than two-thirds of the elderly watched the debate. What if anything about the debate left older whites so much less impressed with Obama, especially given the untenable caricature of him that McCain has been peddling all summer? And why, if they thought Obama and McCain performed about as well in the debate, did Obama lose so much ground among them?
This could be a question of different voters caring more about different issues, though the numbers are so far outside the mainstream that it looks more like a case of voters seeing developments through a rigid filter – such as the white evangelical voters who, unlike nearly everybody else, still believe overwhelmingly that Sarah Palin is “well qualified” to be president.
As for the counter-intuitive attitudes of elderly whites, it’s hard to avoid the inference that racism played a role. But perhaps religious beliefs were involved. This group also was singular in another respect – Sarah Palin’s favorable/unfavorable numbers actually improved for her during this period among voters over 65. Given how badly she’s stumbled in public, that’s pretty counter-intuitive as well.