Despite John McCain's attempt to call it a tie, poll after poll after focus group (even on FOX News) says he lost Friday's debate and Obama won. While some of the reasons apply specifically to the unique dynamics of 2008 presidential campaign, there are some general rules of thumb that can be extrapolated that Palin and Biden, as well as any state or local politician should heed from McCain's mistakes.
- Avoid jargon. To rebut Obama's claim that he was a leader on the issue of Nuclear Proliferation, McCain talked about he was an original co-sponsor of Nunn-Lugar. As a international relations major in college, and a political junkie with internship experience with a Congressman, I knew exactly what he was talking about. But I doubt most of the people watching had a clue. McCain also railed on Obama for not holding hearings in his sub-committee, when Obama explained that really Joe Biden is the committee chair and he held the necessary hearings, McCain said something like "well, I always held hearings when I was chair of my sub-committees."
Both instances gave Obama the perfect opportunity to showcase why being in the Senate for decades is detrimental to one's ambitions for higher office. He said the sub-committee thing was "Senate inside baseball" and summarized the substance of bills he was touting as his ability to do big things, not the names of them. While McCain's points might have been valid, they came off poorly. Obama came off as a good explainer of his vision and why McCain's is myopic (comparing the $18 billion a year spent on earmarks to the $10 a month spent on the war in Iraq), and McCain came off as a guy whose been in DC for 26 years.
- Never belabor your support for unpopular positions. During the debate, CNN had a graphic underneath the feed from Mississippi of the dials it gave to its Cleveland, Ohio focus group, color coded for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. McCain's numbers tanked the most (they went down a lot) among all three groups when he went on and on about the war in Iraq and how leaving would be declaring "defeat." For over two years now, something like 60% of the country has decided that the war was a mistake and that we should start getting out. So the debate over Iraq is now how to best get out, not whether we should get out at all.
Obama skillfully beat back McCain "but the Surge worked!" retort by saying it was a tactic that was necessary to prevent further catastrophe of a war that was unnecessary and poorly done, a war that McCain cheerleaded for years until he complained about Rumsfeld's incompetence. Rather than addressing the merits of this point, McCain went back to the "What Senator Obama doesn't understand..." well and kept rambling about tactics versus strategy and mentioning General Petraeus as if just evoking his name would destroy Obama's argument. McCain should have focused on his (belated) calls for Rumsfeld's resignation and other harsh words he had for the Bush Administration's prosecution of the Iraq war.
- Look your opponent in the eye and tell them they are wrong. Media commenters and those in the blogosphere noticed that McCain avoided eye contact with Obama. Instead, he uttered profanities under his breath. This reminded me of Al Gore's sighs and Bush's winking in the 2000 and 2004 debates. Body language is more important than substance in these debates for undecideds, especially when the topic is something "boring" or "wonky" like foreign policy. Obama projected confidence with his positions and self, while McCain seemed desperate and nervous.
- Keep gimmicks to a minimum. John McCain attempted to "shake up the race" twice, once by picking someone as qualified for the Vice Presidency as SL County Mayor Peter Corroon, and next by claiming to be suspending his campaign and attempting to cancel/postpone the debates. The public (and SNL) saw through these attempts as stunts, and not serious efforts to do anything. When comedians can parody your attempts to change the dynamics of the campaign, you know you have gone too far. You can only debate a cardboard cutout/plant so many times.
- Ignore the moderator's pet peeves, gently. NBC's Tim Russert was obsessed with Social Security's solvency. ABC's Charlie Gibson is obsessed with the capital gains tax. PBS's Jim Lehrer on Friday was obsessed with the candidate talking to each other and not rhetorically to him. Obama was admonished for saying "Jim" like Senators say "Mr. President" in their speeches (referring to the Senator sitting in the chair (the President Pro Tempore of the Senate), not the President of the US). So Obama semi-mockingly repeated his sentence replacing "Jim" with "John" and everyone laughed at how silly the pet peeve was. This simultaneously satisfied Lehrer, made Lehrer stop talking about it, and made the media aware of McCain's lack of eye contact.
- Don't try to have the last say on every point. This is one of the toughest ones to do, since it is a debater's natural instinct to attempt to correct the record/the opponent and stick it to them one last time. But overdoing it makes you seem like a insecure jerk, not an alpha dog. A couple times Obama attempted to respond a second or third time on a topic and was interrupted again by McCain or Lehrer. Obama merely smiled and said something like "well let's move on." While some Democrats were annoyed with this apparent passivity, Obama had countered that with prior instances of asserting himself against McCain earlier in the debate. This way, Obama appeared gracious and eager to address other topics, without looking like a complete doormat. And by contrast, McCain appeared to be a guy that couldn't let go and had to make the same point yet another way. Gore suffered from this problem in the first debate in 2000 as well.
That's about all I can think of at this point. Of course, it is easier said than done. But if you remember nothing else VP wannabes, just because your goal is to be the President of the U.S. Senate, you shouldn't sound like you are the president of the Senate.