Preparing for the worst

One of the fascinating aspects of the three debates so far (two presidential, and one vice presidential) has been to watch how the candidates have handled their alleged vulnerabilities. In each debate, one or both of the candidates had a significant weakness or flaw that was ripe to be exploited by his opponent.

The thing is, everyone knew this. And that means the candidates — and more importantly, their debate prep teams — knew this even better. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the candidates have had some of their strongest moments on issues that were expected to trip them up.

In the above video, President Obama takes Mitt Romney to task for his criticism regarding the consulate attack in Benghazi, leaving the former Massachusetts governor flailing a bit in his response. This was supposed to be Romney’s trump card, and Obama — who had clearly been waiting to respond to this — instead turned it into perhaps his strongest moment of the night.

We saw similar dynamics during the vice presidential debate. Most expected Joe Biden to dominate Paul Ryan on foreign policy and for the opposite to occur in relation to Medicare. But in truth, something a little closer to the opposite took place: Ryan opened fire very early on regarding the attack in Libya, leaving Biden to issue a less than reassuring rebuttal about America’s resolve. Meanwhile, Biden proved perhaps more convincing on Medicare than Ryan did, never allowing the Congressman to drag the conversation into the weeds.

In the first presidential debate, the largest elephant in the room was Mitt Romney’s 47% comment, which Obama — in his dazed and confused performance that night — never managed to bring up. But assuredly Romney had a response all cued up beforehand for that as well. (Interestingly, Obama managed to work in a reference to the 47% issue on the last question of last night’s debate, a phenomenal tactical move that denied Romney the chance to use a prepackaged and rehearsed rebuttal.)

As the upcoming final debate next Monday is on foreign policy, technically the subject should be moving back onto Obama’s turf. But if there’s anything these first three debates have taught us (other than the enormous versatility of the common binder), it’s that waiting to pounce on your opponent’s weakest point does not always pay dividends.

Debates and video games

Robert Schoon watched last night’s vice presidential debate on his Xbox:

Xbox’s simple presentation was a surprisingly liberating, compared to watching on T.V.. I had been watching other channels that night, and all of them, even the broadcast networks, had some gimmick on the screen, whether it was split-screen “reaction” shots, twitter feeds, ubiquitous crawl at the bottom of the screen, or even just visually displaying the moderator’s question. Though it didn’t look revolutionary in the “digital age” sense, it was a quiet rebellion against the distracting visual packaging that all the news channels have seemingly decided upon.

Then the polls started popping up on screen. At about half an hour before the end of the debate, a little blue band appeared with a question and three choices. After choosing one, a bar graph would appear, giving instant results, in percentages, for each option. I counted at least fifteen questions before I lost track, and though the questions tracked well with the debate – foreign policy questions while Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan talked Afghanistan, questions about candidates’ religion during the abortion portion – the polling became so rapid-fire as to become distracting. Plus, they were beside the point, unless that point was to relentlessly confirm that roughly two-thirds of Xbox Live watchers are liberal and about ten percent had no opinion about anything.

Still, it’s a start…

Personally, I found ABC News’ coverage last night nauseating. I turned on the live Internet feed about 15 minutes before the debate started, and all the hosts were talking about was the apparently horrifying news that Twitter usage would be banned in the debate hall. Then, during the debate itself, an absurdly large blue bar kept popping up showing which keywords were trending on Twitter. Enough, already.

The mysterious undecided voter

The New Republic imagines an undecided independent’s notes on last night’s vice presidential debate:

– Mitt Romney is a good man with a large heart. I know this because Paul Ryan told a story about a family that got hit by a car, and how Romney paid for them to go for college for free. My son Scott graduates high school next year; if he asks me to pay for college I will throw him in front of a car.

– Joe Biden said 47 percent of Americans are his mom and dad. Catholic families are even bigger than I thought!

– When the debate turned to Medicare and Medicaid, I was surprised to learn they are actually two separate programs. The way I explained to Scott was, “think of the AL and the NL in baseball, but with medicine.” One thing we can agree on: Everybody loves baseball, and people who like soccer can’t be trusted. (I don’t know what Social Security is.)

Several weeks ago, along similar lines, Michelle Cottle wondered, “Who the hell are these people?”

Ask the political scientists, pollsters, and other professional analyzers of the electorate who parse these sorts of things. They will tell you—as they have told me repeatedly over the years—that undecideds or swing voters or whatever you want to call them tend to be low-information folks who cast their ballots based on whichever candidate gives them the last-minute warm-and-fuzzies. (Did you see that guy’s smile in the last debate? Sign me up!) Way back during the 2000 Bush-Gore smackdown, I dug around in the data, interviewed undecideds, and called up a passel of experts. My findings were perhaps best (and certainly most entertainingly) summed up by Michael Haselswerdt, then the head of Canisius College’s political science department, who told me: “When it comes to politics, undecided voters don’t know anything. And they’re not going to pay attention long enough to learn anything.”

Twelve years on, the situation has not changed much. As The New York Times noted recently, “Swing voters often form their opinions about candidates based on emotional intangibles and a few events, like the debates.”

As for these oh-so-thoughtful folks’ carefully weighing their options, the Times observed, “Of likely swing voters, white non-college voters are ‘particularly low-information voters who don’t pay attention to the daily political back-and-forth, so their opinions are driven by their economic situation,’” said Jefrey Pollock, the president of Global Strategy Group, a polling firm for Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC.

Or as NBC’s First Read put it last week after postconvention analyses of undecideds in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, and Virginia: “These are voters who simply aren’t paying attention.”

Ya think?

An exasperated Cottle summarizes:

Yet these are the sages to whom the political world caters, and on whom presidential campaigns spend literally billions of dollars. The media interview them until we’re blue in the face.  We put them on the television. We stick them in focus groups. Pollsters track their every cough and yawn. Never has such demonstrable ignorance been in such great demand. (Well, unless you count the cast of Jersey Shore.)

It almost makes you feel sorry for Romney and Obama, having to spend so much of their time chasing after people who don’t really give a damn one way or the other. If ever there was a slice of the electorate that didn’t deserve such pandering, it is these “thoughtful” few.

Bill Maher had similar thoughts.

Immediate thoughts

Full disclosure: I have not steered entirely clear from post-debate news coverage, and I was quite active on Twitter during the debate itself. That said, I’ve yet to absorb much post-debate spin at all, so here are my initial thoughts, pre-groupthink phase:

1) Everyone knew Joe Biden would be on the attack, and he was. However, I really think he overplayed it — especially with the laughing while Paul Ryan was speaking. (He also interrupted Ryan way too much.) There was far too much of that going on. It’s not a good — or a serious — image for Biden to be guffawing on the split-screen while Ryan discusses Iranian nuclear aspirations. Three or four times might have been alright, but Biden was laughing so much that it was quickly obvious that the laughter had been part of the debate prep. Biden’s good enough (and authentic enough) on his own without resorting to prepackaged and insincere facial expressions.

2) That said, when it was time for him to speak, Biden was on fire. He was lucid, specific, and even demonstrated the perfect level of righteous indignation at Ryan’s naïveté. It felt like the old master schooling the cocky young apprentice. Especially on the crucial issue of Medicare, Biden never allowed Ryan to get into the weeds with obscure statistics and numbers: he simply steamrolled over him and directly addressed seniors — his peers — while looking directly into the camera. Ryan didn’t have the facts on his side; Biden did. And he kept pressing Ryan for specifics, which Ryan was unable to provide.

3) At first, I liked the moderator. But when she started directing nearly all her follow-up questions to Paul Ryan and at one point even seemed to mock him (I can’t remember what exactly she said, but the tone of one of her questions to him was distinctly ironic), I was disappointed. Biden was taking care of business just fine; she should have at least pressed Biden on some of the things he was claiming, if for no other reason than the fact that Obama-Biden have an actual record they have to account for. Romney-Ryan may be promising the moon, and it’s absolutely appropriate to press for specifics (no matter how uncomfortable it makes them), but in my opinion she looked biased by consistently failing to follow up on Biden’s defenses of the Obama administration.

4) While I do believe Paul Ryan got schooled, I don’t think there was much he could have done differently. He maintained a calm, even keel throughout the debate, suffering through Biden’s mockery and near-constant interruptions. He spoke slowly and deliberately. Unlike the presidential debate, where it was more apparent that Obama had lost it than that Romney had won it, this time the tables were turned: Joe Biden clearly won the debate, but Ryan definitely did not do anything to embarrass himself or Mitt Romney. My one major beef with Ryan’s performance (other than the fact that he defends indefensible policies) was something he may or may not even be able to control: he just looks and feels insincere, even cheesy. His closing line elicited uproarious laughter among the group watching the debate with me: he looked straight into the camera and recited an obviously scripted stump speech with absolutely zero authenticity.

5) My takeaway? Biden’s performance will absolutely rile up the base. I also think it may make some inroads with seniors, especially those already wary of the sly-seeming Paul Ryan and his voucher plan. Biden is simply more credible to older people, especially as someone of retirement age and from a working-class background. As for the independents, I could easily imagine Biden’s performance working against him: he was perhaps overly combative with the constant interruptions and unconvincing laughter. When he spoke, he was spot-on; it’s what he was up to when he wasn’t supposed to be speaking that could be a big problem.

6) One thing I really didn’t like: Joe Biden bringing up his deceased wife to score a political point. Just…not classy.

This was definitely a high point for me of the election season so far, and I couldn’t have agreed more with the Twitter user who posted, “I wish I could watch this debate forever.” Amen, brother.

Pre-debate advice…

…from me. The progressive blog Left Call has just posted an essay I wrote that further develops some of the themes I’ve been discussing recently here at The First Casualty:

When Joe Biden and Paul Ryan leave the stage in Kentucky tonight following their vice presidential debate, do yourself a favor: turn off the TV. The singular element that makes such events so unique – the utter unpredictability of what will happen for those 90 short minutes – evaporates the moment the channel switches from the debate floor to the spin rooms.

There is virtually nothing as tired and repetitive as television debate coverage. I know this because I’ve seen plenty of it.

Read the rest of it at Left Call.