It’s all relative

The conventional widsom holds that John McCain suffered because he “suspended his campaign” and returned to Washington during the September bailout debate. By the same token, it is thought that Barack Obama enhanced his prospects by taking a more passive, “above the fray” approach. Obama, we are told, looked steady while McCain appeared to be “erratic.”

I have argued, however, that if McCain had stayed above the fray and Obama had returned to Washington, Obama’s prospects also would have been enhanced. In this scenario, McCain would have been portrayed as disconnected from the nation’s economic woes, while Obama would have been seen as showing leadership.

McCain, in this account, was “damned if he did and damned if he didn’t” because the public was angry, wanted change, and (correctly) perceived that Obama would usher in more change than McCain. Once the public came to that conclusion, it drew all inferences in Obama’s favor.

Consider the matter of Obama’s associations with likes of William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. These associations did not seem to resonate with voters this year. But in 1988, Republicans were thought to have obtained mileage from Michael Dukakis’ connection with the ACLU. And in 2004, John Kerry’s affinity for the French seemed to work against him. The ACLU and the French are far less toxic than Ayers and Wright. But in 1988 and 2004 voters did not want to oust the Republicans. In 2008 they did.

The first Obama-McCain debate illustrates the same phenomenon. Although Obama debated well, McCain had him outgunned on foreign policy, the main subject of that evening. But according to the polls, most viewers thought that Obama won the debate. They saw McCain as angry and somewhat mean. Under different economic circumstances, I think they would have perceived him of having just the toughness and mastery of foreign affairs that a president needs.

As I suggested at the time, the public’s reaction to the first debate was strong evidence that Obama was destined to win the election. Indeed, I think presidential debates almost always tell us more about where the electorate stands than than about where the candidates do. And even when the candidate the electorate favors does so poorly that it has no choice but notice, the effect tends not to last for long. For example, although President Bush sank in the polls after his wretched performance in the first debate in 2004, he was soon able to restore roughly his prior standing. If the roles had been reversed, Kerry would never have recovered.

If the “relativity” theory I have just advanced is correct, then most of what the pundits focused on in this election was always irrelevant to the outcome. In a follow-up post, I will argue that, by contrast, both campaigns had their eyes on the ball.

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