obama-mccain_debate_1.jpgLast night I watched the first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain downstairs in our residence hall’s commons. We had a group of about forty Faculty Fellows, RAs, and first-years from our building and others. The students were largely pro-Obama it seemed to me: they laughed at McCain’s fumbling of names and groaned when he used his “Miss Congeniality” line a second time. [You can find a transcript of the debate here.]

About a dozen stayed afterward for a discussion of the debate (it was Friday night in New York City, after all), and I was surprised to find that many of them felt that McCain might have “won” because he seemed to get off the better one-liners. Quite a few professed to have had trouble following some of Obama’s answers. Some voiced frustration with both candidates’ reluctance to answer certain questions directly, and some wished that Obama had adopted McCain’s more direct style of attack. One woman, who suspected that McCain’s use of the word “naive” was in fact code for a certain kind of racial condescension, wished that Obama had found a subtle way to make McCain’s age an issue.

Most of the group was reluctant to name a “winner.” So I said that I would go out on a limb and declare that people would end up thinking of Obama as the “winner” of this debate, because he did the thing that he had to do in the first thirty minutes — like Kennedy in 1960, he had to appear “presidential” and lay to rest fears that he was not qualified for the job. The fact that the debate began with a discussion of the current financial crisis didn’t help McCain at all, and even though McCain seemed more comfortable (if a bit testy) during the later sections devoted to foreign affairs, Obama did what he had to do there as well: he showed that he was more than capable of handling the foreign-policy part of the president’s job.

What was missing, I suggested, using a phrase that I dislike but that has become part of the current political discourse, was a “game-changer” that would help McCain regain momentum. Something along the lines of Reagan’s “There you go again . . . ” or Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” or Al Gore’s notorious sighing and eye-rolling. But there was no signal moment that would be remembered. And in that case, the tie goes to Obama. To use a baseball metaphor: infield hit, safe at first.

The initial focus group reactions and polls seem to confirm my suggestion. CNN posted an article entitled “Round 1 in debates goes to Obama, poll says,” reporting that “a national poll of people who watched the first presidential debate
suggests that Barack Obama came out on top,” adding that “there was overwhelming
agreement that both Obama and John McCain would be able to handle the
job of president if elected.” Not good news for McCain, according to the article:

“It can be reasonably concluded, especially after accounting for the
slight Democratic bias in the survey, that we witnessed a tie in
Mississippi tonight,” CNN Senior Political Researcher Alan Silverleib
said. “But given the direction of the campaign over the last couple of
weeks, a tie translates to a win for Obama.”

Time magazine’s Joe Klein argued that “there was nothing in this debate that was a knockout blow–nothing that should change the current trajectory of the campaign.” And that trajectory favors Obama.

Indeed, one of my faculty colleagues suggested, as our discussion wound down, that Obama supporters should be heartened by a report he heard that afternoon on public radio, which cited an assertion on www.fivethirtyeight.com that if the election were held now, Obama would likely receive 300 electoral votes. By this morning, the site had raised that figure to 317.8.

I did find that heartening, because fivethirtyeight.com is Nate Silver’s site, the site that became famous when Silver outdid all the other pollsters in predicting Obama’s big win in the North Carolina Democratic primary last spring. I wrote about Silver in my post “Baseball and Politics” last June: he is the statistician who developed the PECOTA system of predicting likely success for baseball players based on a new way of thinking about how to contextualize historical data and players’ past performances.

Silver went out on a limb last February and predicted that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would finish 88-74, improve on last year’s record by an astounding 22 wins. Silver based this prediction on a comparison of this year’s Tampa Bay team to the 1994 Cleveland Indians. Silver was right, although in fact he underestimated the Rays’ performance: the Rays won the AL East, beating out the heaviliy favored Red Sox and Yankees, and with one game left to play their record stands at 96-65! Moreover, Silver predicted that Rays’ rookie third baseman Evan Longoria would turn in a “Ryan Zimmerman-caliber performance of 20 to 25 homers accompanied by Gold Glove-quality defense.” As of tonight, Longoria has 27 home runs and 85 RBI and seems to be a lock for AL Rookie-of-the-Year honors.

So if Nate Silver is telling me that Barack Obama is looking good right now, I’m more than happy to take his word for it.