Stumper: Oxford Debate, Take Two: The Importance of Expectations

Stumper (9/29/08)

Oxford Debate, Take Two: The Importance of Expectations

Expectations–or, more specifically, the vast differences between my expectations and the expectations of your average, casual, low-information voter. As an associate editor and political blogger at NEWSWEEK, I’ve been following McCain and Obama for more than a year. I’ve seen each candidate speak in person on a dozen occasions. I analyze their every maneuver. But the most relevant viewers for Friday night’s debate were nothing like me. They don’t read blogs. They hadn’t watched any of the 30 or so primary debates. And they’d probably never seen Obama or McCain speak, whether in person or on TV. For tens of millions of people, Friday was their first actual exposure to this year’s crop of candidates.

My expectations for Obama were relatively realistic. I know from personal experience that he’s a sensible, rational, confident member of the American political mainstream. But many casual voters, as the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder notes, probably expected to see someone a bit more radical on stage. “Think of the ‘bitter’ comment, his middle name, the flag pin, the Chicago connections,” he notes. “Low information voters wouldn’t be out of line if they had a pretty strong impression of Obama formed by these attributes.” So what ended up happening, I think, is that I took the most important information conveyed on screen–that Obama is NOT a radical–for granted. I already knew that Obama would come off as smart, sober, congenial and unthreatening. But a lot of voters–many of them eminently swingable–did not. And they were duly impressed when he did. “This weird racial/ideological caricature was priced into our (campaigns, media) debate expectations,” writes Ambinder. “Obama coming off as a sensible, middle of the road senator actually did him a world of good as far as the reassurance of sensibility.”

The proof is in the pudding. According to a Bloomberg News/Los Angeles Times poll released Sunday, 44 percent of uncommitted viewers said Obama looked more presidential than McCain. Only 16 percent gave the Arizonan an advantage. The fact is, most voters assumed that McCain–an older, more familiar face–was “presidential” coming into the debate. He could only disappoint. Obama–or at least the mythical “Ayers-Wright Chicago Elite Radical” Obama–had a much lower bar to clear. And he cleared it with ease. This may not have surprised me, but it did surprise the people–i.e., swing voters–who actually matter.

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