|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.