Debate Casts No Change

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

October 7, 2008

The question was whether tonight’s debate would fundamentally change the flow of public sentiment, after Barack Obama has this past week made substantial gains in both national surveys and the key battleground states. Surveys indicated that he had bested John McCain in the first presidential debate. The vice presidential debate did nothing to reverse that verdict. The country, in a somber mood, listened.

Would Obama make a serious gaffe that reduced his credibility as a potential president and reverse the progress he had made during the first debate? Could McCain change the focus from the global economic crisis to Obama’s character and experience? Would McCain be able to overcome the constraints of the town hall format and go on the offensive effectively while muting the overt antipathy toward his adversary? Would either candidate seize the high ground by explaining recent economic event in terms that average Americans could understand?

Based on the debate that just ended, we can go some distance toward answering these questions. Obama made no significant gaffes. Rather than reversing the impression he made in the first debate, he reinforced it. McCain talked extensively about his own experience but did not make a strong case that Obama lacked the experience to be president. The town hall format did in fact make it more difficult for McCain to mount a sustained attack against Obama. Obama explained the economic crisis in simpler, less senatorial language than McCain. But neither candidate offered solutions equal in scope to the crisis itself.

Because Obama had the advantage entering the debate, his challenge was to hold his advantage. McCain’s task was harder–to gain ground. It does not appear that he did so. On balance, then, the second debate did not fundamentally change the flow of the campaign. As a result, Obama is one large step closer to the presidency.