Xanadu, My Focus Group, and Biden's Painful "Victory"

by: Chris Bowers

Tue Jul 24, 2007 at 00:45


I did it! I finally managed to sit though an entire debate. Even though I am an election junkie, until today I had found the Democratic debates impossible to watch in their entirety--or even for more than about ten minutes.  Previously, I had found watching eight candidates randomly provide thirty-second non-answers to an utterly unfocused set of vague, off the shelf questions to be a severely soul-sucking experience. Previous debates have been so awful, that it still perplexes me even now that anyone would try and score points off Edwards for suggesting a change in the format of these train wrecks. You might as well try and score points off Edwards because he said Xanadu was a terrible movie with the aesthetic sensibilities of an eleven year old on cocaine. What changed this time? I watched it with a couple of beers, a few friends who do not work full-time in politics but who provided lots of running commentary, and at least some amusing YouTube questions (although there were clearly several knee-jerk, conservative talking point robot plants that I did not appreciate).

More in the extended entry.
Chris Bowers :: Xanadu, My Focus Group, and Biden's Painful "Victory"
The strangest thing happened after the debate was over. I noticed that both on CNN, and in the progressive blogosphere, several people started trying to determine who won, and even making declarations that Candidate X had, in fact, clearly won the debate. I was taken aback. There was a winner? There was even a competition? What did the winner, well, "win?" New hard-core voters in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries? New donors? The deliverance of a biting comment that will psychological scar one of his or her opponents so badly that s/he cannot continue on the campaign trail with naught but a thoroughly shredded sense of self-esteem?

The truth is, there is only one objective way for any candidate to "win" the debate: if the debate, or the post-debate spin, cumulatively result in your campaign moving closer to taking the nomination than you were before the debate. That's it.  From this "God's eye" perspective, it is doubtful that anyone won the debate. The factors that make the most difference in pushing someone closer to the nomination are, first, new Iowa supporters and, second, new supporters in New Hampshire. Everything else is pretty distant, and I seriously, seriously doubt anyone picked up much, if anything, in those two categories. Granted, the candidates might have made steps in those directions, either by raising name identification or raising favorability ratios. In this sense, it is virtually impossible for any first tier candidates to "win" the debate, since they are already so well known.  For example, back in 1992, Perot actually won crushing victories in every debate, simply because far more people became aware of him as a result of the debates. Then again, as the Dodd debate clock again showed tonight, leading candidates are given so much more talk time than second and third tier candidates in these debates, that maybe it might actually be possible for well-known candidates to "win."

So, whose image improved most from the debate? Political Wire has the answer, from a Survey USA instant poll. Biden clearly won, as he temporarily improved his favorability ratio more than twice as much as any other candidate:

However, it was Sen. Joe Biden who made the biggest impression among viewers. Debate watchers were asked if they viewed each Democrat positively or negatively. Comparing the before and after answers:

  • Biden went up 38 points, from -6 to +32.
  • Obama went up 17 points, from +24 to +41.
  • Clinton went up 16 points, from +34 to +50.
  • Edwards went up 16, from +22 to +38.
  • Dodd went up 15, from -21 to -6.
  • Richardson went up 14, from -1 to +13.
  • Kucinich went up 7, from -21 to -14.
  • Gravel went down 3, from -29 to -32.

Why did Biden win the debate? I think the answer is both obvious and quite sad: most people didn't know that his wife and daughter were killed during the early days of his Senate career. My friends all gasped when they heard him say that, and asked me how they had been killed.  Few people would be willing to give him an unfavorable rating almost immediately after hearing that story. And so he won. Certainly not in the way he intended, and definitely not in the way he would have liked.  But he won, none the less.

Otherwise, clearly Richardson, Dodd, Edwards, Clinton and Obama more or less tied, while Gravel clearly lost and Kucinich finished seventh. Despite my background in textual analysis, I am not going to parse the transcripts to try to determine key lines (I always was a fan of parataxis anyways, so I'm not really into that sort of thing). Instead, I would rather share insights from my mini-focus group of three certain voters in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. (All of my friends vote in both the primary and the general every year, because I nag them about it endlessly as per my duties as local committeeperson.)  From what I could tell, they were pretty impressed with Clinton (though still wary, because while they love, love Bill, they thought he could have accomplished more), despised Gravel (though he still made them laugh), and also very hot and cold on Kucinich (lots of really good lines, lots of really bad lines). One of my friends was from Connecticut, and really wanted to like Dodd, but she wasn't feeling it. Another one of my friends went to Tufts, so she really wanted to like fellow alum Richardson, but I don't think he made the sale, either. I think I talked more about Obama and Edwards than anyone else in the room. Besides that, I did not sense any strong feelings, and we quickly migrated downstairs to play Guitar Hero instead of watching more post-debate spin.

All in all, an enjoyable evening.  I hope there are more experimental formats in debates. Regardless, news organizations should let ordinary Americans write the questions more often.  If there is anything more boring than watching eight candidates randomly provide thirty-second non-answers to an utterly unfocused set of vague, off the shelf questions, it is watching a news anchor ask those questions.


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nice (4.00 / 1)
with the aesthetic sensibilities of an eleven year old on cocaine.

That's a good line


Joe Biden Should Go To Hollywood (0.00 / 0)
Seriously, he'd be better at it than Fred Thompson (with good scriptwriters, that is!), and we could replace him with a real Senator, who wouldn't always be wildly swinging between hopeless presidential runs, installing mendacious predators on the Supreme Court, and generally boring everyone to tears with how pompously self-important he is.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

Just keep him out of domestic politics and we'll be fine. (0.00 / 0)
Biden, despite his fantastically awful domestic policies, made some good foreign policy points tonight.  I thought his answers on Darfur and Iraq were strong and well reasoned.  Perhaps his campaign for Sec. State will have a little more traction.

[ Parent ]
Oh Please! (0.00 / 0)
He has been so wrong about the big things so often, he gets no credit from me when he does the stopped clock routine and manages to be right twice a day.

No Democrat gets more face time from the media on foreign affairs than Biden, now that Lieberman is an independent.  That alone should tell you how vacant he is.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Re: Oh Please! (0.00 / 0)
It is especially important to recognize when politicans we generally don't like are right.  I think we should save the criticism for when politicians do things we disagree with, or at least target our criticisms at what they do wrong.

I'm not saying we should all go and worship Biden as a democratic hero, just that we should recognize his points when they are valid and support those, even if we don't support Biden personally (which neither of us does, clearly.)


[ Parent ]
Then What's The About His Candidacy For Secretary Of State? (0.00 / 0)
Yes, Biden passes the stopped clock test.  He's right two time a day.  What caused my reaction was mention of his name and "Secretary of State" in the same sentence.

Actually, though, I have no strong objections to Biden being Secretary of State... of Delaware.  It would get him out of the Senate.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Edwards said that? (4.00 / 1)

He said Xanadu was a terrible movie with the aesthetic sensibilities of an eleven year old on cocaine?  Figures, in 2003 he said it was a transcendental, life-changing movie experience for the whole family. 

You're A Walking A Caricature, Dude! n/t (0.00 / 0)


"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Expose yourself. (0.00 / 0)
It's a joke, Professor.

[ Parent ]
Well, Duh! (0.00 / 0)
The joke's on you for thinking it's funny.  It sounded like something a GOP troll would say.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Troll? (0.00 / 0)
How much Dungeons & Dragons do you have to play to call someone a troll?  What's next, calling me an evil Libertarian gnome?  You've cut me to the quick, you, you...ogre, you Billy Goat Gruff!

[ Parent ]
There are winners (4.00 / 2)
Several ways to win:
1) Move or maintain the media narrative. Hillary's expertise in these formats has really helped her "prove" she is the one who is "ready." Richardson's poor performances prior to tonight undercut the argument that his experience was important. The Iowa and New Hampshire voters cannot escape the narrative. No one can.

2) Leverage the performance into donations and grassroots support via debate watches, web links, and other techniques. Campaigns and Elections did a piece showing the effect of debate events on fundraising, for instance.

3) Neighbors and friends who are not into politics daily actually do watch and discuss. A good way to grow a precinct is to do precisely what you did, just a little more deliberately. The candidates then do have a chance to influence ultimate voting. There were debate watching parties large and small in Iowa and NH tonight.

Visit DebateScoop for political candidate debate news and analysis.


This will come back to haunt them (4.00 / 2)
I think any candidate like Biden and Hillary who claimed itâ??ll take a year to get out of Iraq (Biden) or a month to redeploy each brigade (Hillary) did serious damage to him or herself. We now have what, 15, 20 brigades in Iraq? It took us 3-1/2 weeks to fight our way to Baghdad and itâ??s going to take a year or two to do what most Iraqis want us to do and get out? Thatâ??s just stupid, overly cautious, inside the beltway, serious person blather. Occupying Iraq isnâ??t the solution, itâ??s the problem.

Exactly (0.00 / 0)
Hillary is tacking back to her natural DLC position way too early.  1-2 years to get out of Iraq AFTER she's president?  And she didn't deny Richardson's assertion that even after that she's for leaving 50,000 troops in Iraq.  And to see her nod at Biden -- scary.

That and the lack of a healthcare plan at what is getting to be a late date (she's clearly going to miss the SEIU 2 August deadline).

West Michigan Rising: Progressives On the West-End of the Third Coast


[ Parent ]
Withdrawal (0.00 / 0)
As a supporter of withdrawing from Iraq, I think people need to take Biden's position more seriously.  Even though I personally detest his politics (bankruptcy bill anyone?), he is right about the time it takes to withdraw military forces from Iraq.  The problem isn't getting out most of the people, but rather the tons of US military equipment that is there, as well as the troops that are most actively engaged in counter insurgency, and therefore most at risk.

We need to move over 150,000 troops out of Iraq without exposing them to unnecessary risk.  I'm all for zero US presence in Iraq, but I think we need to withdraw responsibly.


[ Parent ]
Why Biden "won." (4.00 / 1)
While I agree that the "prize" the candidates "win" is either dubious or nonexistent, I don't think that Biden's win was solely based on the death of his wife and daughter.

Biden showed a presence that some of the other candidates lacked.  I think he clearly distinguished himself from the rest of the lower tier candidates.  Not that he has any hope of winning the election, or that I would ever consider voting for him in the primary, but I thought his debate performance was impressive.


Hey Bowers, (0.00 / 0)
I heard on NPR that someone posted a video asking Obama if he would come over and play Guitar Hero.  Was that you?  You can admit it...

No clear winner (0.00 / 0)
But the point is not to lose.

Only loser was Chris Dodd and his attempt to explain why he could not manage to live on the miminum wage for the next 4 years.

I mean, come on Chris, your suit probably cost more than some minimum wage earners get in a month.

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


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