September 30, 2008

Assessing the Debate: A Media/Public Disconnect?

After the 90-minute Sept. 26 candidate debate moderated by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, the initial media verdict was decided mixed, and generally cautious.

Over on NBC, Tom Brokaw seemed to award the encounter to McCain based on his more aggressive posture. “John McCain bored in [on] Barack Obama,” Brokaw said, while expressing the view that the Democrat had failed to exploit certain openings. “I’m surprised he didn’t work harder at pinning McCain…to the Bush administration,” he added.

John Dickerson, of the online publication Slate, suggested that Obama had essentially won by holding his own. “Obama and McCain looked like equals onstage,” he declared. “He was firm in his beliefs and clear in his views on foreign policy.”

During the CBS post-mortem, Bob Schieffer seemed to speak for many media observers when he noted that both sides had their moments and that no one really dominated. “There was no knockout,” he declared.

The next morning, front pages all over America adopted some of that boxing lingo with headlines that seemed almost wistful that the candidates hadn’t bloodied each other more and the outcome had not been more clear cut.

“Candidates punch, dodge but stay in comfort zones,” read the headline in the Bangor Daily News.

“No Knockout Punch In Round One,” declared the Detroit Free Press.

Added the Spokane Spokesman-Review: “No defining moment, clear victory seen in first debate.”

But if the media referees were generally inclined to rule the debate a draw, the public didn’t see it that way, at least according to some early polls taken after the debate, including so-called “snap polls” designed to get an immediate reaction. In a series of surveys, people who watched the encounter thought the Illinois senator had done better, fairly decidedly.

A USA Today/Gallup poll found that 46% of viewers said Obama had won the night in Oxford compared with 34% who favored McCain. A CBS/Knowledge Networks survey had Obama the winner by a 39%-24% tally while 51% of those surveyed for a CNN poll thought Obama had done better compared with 38% who gave the nod to McCain. One finding in a Bloomberg/LA Times poll of debate reaction was that by a 46%-33% tally, respondents thought Obama appeared more presidential than McCain that night.

These findings were buttressed to some extent by new horserace polls, including the trend lines in the daily “tracking” polls, that showed Obama enlarging his lead a bit, to somewhere between five and 10 points.

All of which may suggest that the media members were using a different set of judging criteria than the public. While some journalists saw McCain’s more consistent aggression and Obama’s more deferential approach as points in favor of the Republican, it is possible that viewers formed their initial opinions based on more psychological and less political cues — including Obama’s relaxed body language and McCain’s unwillingness to look directly at his opponent.

In the first paragraph of a Sept. 28 story noting this apparent discrepancy and reviewing the polling, Politico.com stated that, “Two days after a presidential debate many commentators scored as a tie, it’s beginning to look like the public saw things differently, as several polls show a small but significant post-debate boost for Barack Obama.”