A record viewing audience watched the nationally televised vice-presidential candidate debate Thursday night, Oct. 2. They got a good show. When it was over, things stood just about where they were before the debate began — that is, with Obama-Biden holding a 5 percent lead nationally over McCain-Palin (as per the most recent Gallup Daily tracking poll).
Meanwhile, the context of their showdown in St. Louis was anything but stable:
- The financial rescue package, passed in the Senate, had not yet been passed in the House of Representatives. The Dow fell 348 points during the day Thursday.
- Several major-state polls showed Obama-Biden forging into the lead. NBC's polling director went to far as to state that Democrats might already have clinched victory.
- The Obama-Biden ticket's surge was attributed by most analysts to the ascendance of financial/economic issues, where voters traditionally have preferred Democrats.
- Unseen by most analysts, the Obama-Biden campaign had made major media investments in key states over the previous week. So had independent committees waging negative campaigns against McCain-Palin.
- Entering his debate last week with Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain had weathered several rocky campaign days. McCain fought Obama to a draw and pulled himself up. Entering Thursday's debate, Palin was in exactly the same position. Weak performances in network TV interviews had hurt her. She, too, held her own with Biden and thus broke her bad streak. In particular, she probably reclaimed support among female voters who were having second thoughts about her.
Neither candidate made a major blunder Thursday. Both did a good job of representing their presidential candidates' views. Sen. Joe Biden, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, showed his knowledgeability on overseas issues and also was able to cite legislative history on domestic issues of which Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin lacked knowledge. But Palin held her own on foreign, domestic, and economic policy. She was poised, well-briefed, and exceeded expectations about her performance.
Morning-after analysts will find minor errors or misstatements by both Biden and Palin. But none were important enough to make any difference with voters. Biden reinforced Democratic partisans; Palin reinforced Republicans. I doubt independent or undecided voters were swayed greatly in either direction as a result of the debate. Polling data a day or two hence will tell us about that.
Now, where we do we stand?
The Obama-Biden lead of 5-6 points is not important in itself. An event or campaign occurrence can cause a swing that large in 24 hours. But Democrats have several strong strategic advantages now.
First, so long as finance/economics remain at center stage, voters will continue to lean Democratic. Second, Obama-Biden are better financed and will be able to pour media and organizational money into key swing states. As noted above, McCain and Palin each has had a several-day slump in the general-election campaign and bounced back. Obama-Biden have held generally steady. In sports terms, the Republicans have had to keep rallying from behind, without ever pulling even. If nothing changes, an Obama-Biden victory seems likely. But remember, an unforeseen international event, scandal, or October surprise could change that.
Finally, a personal word. As a lifelong Democrat, I favor Obama-Biden. I have known Biden for many years and have seen him put foot in mouth or become verbose on previous occasions. He did not do that Thursday. He gave a strong, tight performance. Palin, a relative newcomer, held her own and did a professional job in her own right. Both handed the batons back to their No. 1s for their remaining two debates without having done them harm.
Biden choked back a tear as he told of losing his wife and child in an accident. Palin shone through as highly intelligent if still relatively inexperienced. Each, at debate's end, clearly had gained respect for the other. Given their body language during the debate, I also think they came to like each other. Good people, with similar origins, worthy of our pride.