Analysis: The First Presidential Debate

September 26, 2008

It would be put well quoting that tonight’s debate “almost wasn’t,” far exceeding my expectations of a full out brawl.

But before I start, in a nutshell, what really occurred the most to me is that there never really was a knockout punch, a home-run swing — a bold statement or attack that either tore off the roof or declared a real winner. There were really more or less small policy jabs, and in that respect I think that Barack Obama came out on top strategically. 

 A conservative CNN guest commentator put it extremely  well, pointing out that in a social sense, there were truly  two different people debating — a confident foreign policy  candidate who will accuse, accuse, and accuse, and then an  intellectual candidate who very acknowledges his opponents  rights and points out his wrongs, playing out the debate on  the defensive. 

 Although I am not sure that I agree with the statement on  offense and defense, I think that the man raises a very good  point — that Obama will win a debate through his policies,  not his soundbites.  

And this is really where Obama came right off the bat strong, starting by discussing the economic crisis. His first message was ripe and straight to the point, first throwing out the problem and what he will do to fix it, then proclaiming in a more subdued way that his opponent will take a different and less successful path more towards our president. And I also think that he brought out the point of: “Do you want the next four years under a president similar to ours, who is by the way the same person who you give approval ratings below freezing to?” 

And I think that the general audience thought a second about that, liberal, moderate or conservative, and make their own decision. 

And I think at the same time, McCain felt his grasp slipping. CNN provided a audience reaction poll (it obviously debatable if it is accurate) which showed a huge advantage out of the gate to Obama. 

And this was a very decisive moment in the debate. 

When the topic switched to foreign policy, I noticed a McCain taking chances. The pinnacle of this was a very bold statement from McCain about Russian President Vladimir Putin, quoting:

“I looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin, and I saw three letters — a K, a G, and a B.”

And although the strongly conservative crowd went nothing less than “ga-ga” about that comment, I think that in the long term that really lost the debate for McCain. But it essentially wasn’t the point itself, rather a small turning point in the debate showing the larger and larger chances that McCain was taking to make his points. And in the end, I think that people will think about the debate in a whole and move towards the conclusion that Barack Obama was more in control, not jumpy, and factual. But most of all, he wasn’t trying to start a World War Three inside that Mississippi auditorium, rather pointing out what is wrong and right. 

66 Responses to “Analysis: The First Presidential Debate”

  1. jamessye Says:

    I’d say it was a draw and on the verge of a close loss. However, Barack didn’t need to win. He needed to avoid a game change moment or knock out punch on McCain’s strongest topic, Foreign Policy. You are correct though, McCain did seem to be trying to talk in sound bites [maverick, ms. congeniality, etc-etc], which was obvious when his camp put up an ad on youTube which was typical of their knee jerk responses on things.

    I look forward to the VP debate, which should be a clear cut winner. Palin is out of her league and holding her own will be next to impossible. However, lowered expectations always fair well for Republicans so we will see.

  2. pacer521 Says:

    I think that it wouldn’t really destroy Obama if he lost, which is quite the different for McCain. I agree with you about the sound bites, and I am too looking greatly forward to the VP debate.

    thanks for the comment!

  3. Shannon Says:

    That’s a good analysis as well and good post. However, I tend to disagree with you on Obama being in control. I think he was clearly frustrated throughout the night, but you had to be paying attention to notice those things.

    Regardless at the end of the night, if you were going to vote for McCain, you’re more convinced you made a strong choice. If you were voting for Obama, you’re perhaps more convinced you made a strong choice. If you were undecided, you were not given a strong reason, really, why to support either candidate.

    I do believe McCain did better than expected in the first half with the economy question, which will help him going into debate No. 2.

  4. pacer521 Says:


    Thanks for the comment! I’ll stick to my point, and I do believe that I was paying attention. Because I am thirteen and not a voter, I can’t really relate to what you are saying about that, but if I were a voter, I can see why I would support Obama more. The other way around? I personally don’t support McCain, so I really can’t answer your question to its fullest.

    I don’t think that McCain did well in the economy, however, and that’s obviously in my post.


  5. huxbux Says:

    I agree that the KGB comment by McCain wasn’t debate appropriate. It was a soundbite moment. He should have elaborated on what that soundbite conveyed. He was trying to get across the fact that Russia has steadily been moving away from the distribution of local power, and towards the consolidation of power into centralized government agencies.

    It was a one line snippet that most voters can’t unravel because, quite frankly, most voters lack the ability to draw a parallel between Russian political history and present Russian government trends.

    If McCain had said he was concerned with Russia’s recent trend towards power consolidation and emphasised the need to move Russia back towards democracy, his message would have come across as something other then a soundbite.

  6. pacer521 Says:


    Yeah, I really don’t like soundbite moments in debates, they really should be reserved for campaign speeches to get people rallied up — not in a formal sit down (not literately) like this.

    I am in total agreement with your entire comment, and I hope everyone else who is reading this will read your comment as a more elaborated point on what I put up in my post.

    thanks for the comment

  7. xantica Says:

    It should be interesting to see how this all plays out tomorrow on the news and whatnot, though I think the voters will get out of it what they want to get out of it. Obama supporters and McCain supporters alike will feel better about their choice of nominee. It seems that Obama struggles slightly in debates since he tends to want to elaborate on his points more and explain his policies and decisions, whereas McCain seems to not directly answer questions put forth but instead answers with topics he already has in mind in order to go for an emotional impact (unfortunately, in cases of foreign policy, this emotion might be fear).


  8. Rachel Says:

    In my view Obama did appear frustrated at times, but remained in control. They both had weak moments .But, I agree Obama came out strong, was clear and direct on the economy.

  9. pacer521 Says:

    I agree with you as well.. I think they both had their weak moments.

  10. pacer521 Says:


    I think it will be very interesting too see how the press handles the debate. I agree that the voters will get what they want out of it as well. I do think that Obama’s personality gives him a slight disadvantage in debates, but I think that also McCain does have more of a dramatic sound-bite advantage, whether its relevant or not.
    thanks for the comment!

  11. mekhami Says:

    I think they spent too much time on Foreign Policy and not enough time on the economy; then again, I think both candidates were very nondescript on the economy, probably not wanting to jump the gun on supporting an as-of-yet unwritten bailout.

  12. kolchak33 Says:

    I think Obama wasn’t successful in his attempts to tie McCain to Bush, and was mostly on the defensive during the two last thirds of the debate.

    I doubt this will be boosting poll numbers for either, though. It was a very narrow win.

  13. WSE51 Says:

    Pacer521 I loved your post.

    If I were Obama’s debate coach, I would say:
    (1) look at the camera not the moderator
    (2) stop saying “I agree with you John” even if you do agree — he never reciprocated
    (3) don’t let McCain get away with playing the sound bite game (“you said you would meet without preconditions”) — call him on it: “John if you want to dumb down this debate to taking sound bites to the extreme, let’s talk about how you mixed up Sunnis and Shiites; let’s talk about [add 3 more gaffes here]
    (4) demand equal time to sum up at the end, seems the moderator was favoring McCain in that area.

  14. mekhami Says:

    I disagree with Kolchak33. CNN’s after-debate coverage made a good point; initial polls show a 20% lead for Obama, when asked who won the debate. Then the analysts extrapolated that when people see the headlines of the difference in percentages, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  15. pacer521 Says:


    I think it was a bit more of a large win, but I agree that Obama wasn’t as successful with tying McCain to Bush as he probably would have liked.

  16. kolchak33 Says:

    Whose polls, Mekhami?

  17. pacer521 Says:

    Mekhami comment #1,

    I sort of agree, but I think that they were right to spend more time on foreign policy because it has really not been mentioned lately in the MSM.

  18. pacer521 Says:


    thanks for the comments and great pointers. Those sound bites can really kill.

  19. pacer521 Says:

    Mekhami comment #2,

    I’ll let you battle this one out with Kolchak33.

  20. mekhami Says:

    @Kolchak33 initial Flash polls conducted at CNN.

    and @Pacer521, if they hadn’t had this chance to show how truly different they are in this, in this foreign policy arena, and the other debates carried on as planned… I think the foreign policy positions will swing many undecideds in favor of Obama. So it’s good.

  21. kolchak33 Says:

    All the networks are showing different polling data. None of them are going to be remotely accurate until Gallup, Rassmussen, and Zogby post their numbers tomorrow.

  22. Mridul Chadha Says:

    I believe that Obama wasn’t great at the debate but still he was better than McCain.

    I noticed that Obama addressed the common Americans more than McCain did; Obama used phrases like ‘the middle class’ and ‘Main street not the Wall Street’ and his position regarding taxes for families having income less than $250,000 could not be matched by McCain.

    Also McCain didn’t recognize that America’s image overseas has deteriorated while Obama not only recognizes this he also promised to improve America’s image. Obama talked about education a lot more than McCain did.

    All in all, I think that Obama did what he usually does that is, connecting with the people and addressing them directly although he’s not known to talk too much about specifics but this time he did but he wasn’t at his best.

  23. mekhami Says:

    Gallup is highly unreliable, Rasmussen is the only thing I’ll follow.

    But, I’m gonna go ahead and say they’ll predict the same margin or better. Analysts can bicker about their jargonistic technicalities, but in the end, Obama looked better, sounded better, and appealed to the broad cross-section of the American people. John McCain never mentioned the middle class, and with this debate that was focused half on economy, it’s a mortal wound.

  24. kolchak33 Says:

    How is Gallup unreliable?

  25. pacer521 Says:

    I am a bit on Mekhami’s side on this one, but I also can see Kolchak’s points about reliability.

    Matt Y over at thinkprogress, which is a pretty reliable think tank posted the CNN numbers, so they may be a bit more reliable, but to be sure I guess there’s always tomorrow

  26. pacer521 Says:

    Mridul Chadha,

    I agree that Obama, wasn’t at his best, but he was good.

    I also noticed he addressed “main street” more than McCain as well, but I seemingly forgot that. As far as education — I was pretty happy with that — as a 13 year old in 7th grade.

    thanks for the comment and I agree with the rest of yours.


  27. kolchak33 Says:

    Drudge is showing McCain 67%. There are way too many discretions in these numbers. I’m just in favor of waiting until the dust clears.

  28. meretricis Says:

    Yes it seems we have all been pilfering CNN’s stock.

    You had to the love the ‘— a K, a G, and a B.’ line though. I choked on my tongue when he said it, and your right when you point out that they lapped it up, it was so well placed.
    You could practically feel the federal reserve ordering more money.

    The zinger of the night if you will.

  29. Will Says:

    Question – how does raising taxes on anyone help the economy? (closing loopholes raises taxes on businesses, that increase in operating expenses will be seen at the storefront and in employee wages right?)

    And does a 83 dollar a month tax refund really make a difference to anyone? Is Obama trying to bribe undecideds like me to vote for him by buying me a tank a gas a month? I like being bribed, but it’ll take a lot more than a measly 1000 bucks.

  30. sonnypi67 Says:

    I agree with a PBS commentator that felt that this was a very substantive debate. The same commentator also said he hoped this would set the tone for the remainder of the election, that the two candidates would not focus more on the substance of the issues rather than back and forth attacks. However, when pressed by the other commentators to say whether he really thought that would come to pass, he had to admit and say, no, he did not. Unfortunately, I have to agree with that as well.

    McCain’s attempts at zingers, such as the KGB comment fell flat. In fact, I found them particularly annoying. You just got the feeling that he had been waiting all night to get that in there. He seemed all giddy and excited. McCain should lay off the humor. He does not do it well. And just comes off as a jerk.

    If Obama seemed frustrated it was understandable as far as I was concerned. McCain, utilizing what seems to me a very typical Republican tactic (or is it strategy?), ignored certain things that Obama said, changed them into the points that he wanted to argue against and then went on and on, attempting to keep Obama from correcting the record.

    I was frustrated too. No more so than when each time McCain exclaimed, rather over dramatically it seemed to me, that Obama just didn’t understand. He came off as a cranky old geezer who was taking the position that he is right simply by virtue of his age. McCain would do well not to overdue this sort of thing. While experience is important and impressive, if used as a bludgeon it could alienate younger voters, of which there are a considerable number in the election.

    Finally, McCain’s refusal to even look Obama in the eye was disappointing. It showed a lack of respect for his opponent. It also revealed his adolescent tendency to hold a grudge. Is he going to do this with world leaders that he doesn’t like? Because I fail to see how it will be helpful in matter of foreign relations and diplomacy. But then, McCain doesn’t really seem to care much for that kind of thing, anyway.

  31. fifthdecade Says:

    It was interesting to watch the focus group reaction ticker go up and down. It was clear that the registered Republicans were in favour of McCain but in a luke warm way, and the Democrats more in favour of Obama in an enthusiastic way. But even more important was the ticker for the Independent voters, as it is this group who will determine who will win at the election depending on which side they came down on.

    And they favoured Obama 2 to 1, which is supported by immediate post debate polls which mostly gave McCain a score of 38% or so and Obama a score of between 51% and 61%. Interestingly, McCain scored higher with men than Obama, but much less with women and over 50s.

  32. pacer521 Says:


    yes, there is no question the crowd lapped up that comment. But I think that It really wasn’t a winner in the end, like I said in my post.

  33. pacer521 Says:


    Look, I’m not here to convince you to vote for Obama, I just thought that he came out on top in the first debate. I support him, but in the end I’m just a 13 year old blogger without a vote, so there is no way I could successfully convince you to vote for either Obama or McCain.

  34. pacer521 Says:


    You bring up a very good point. I think that McCain did attempt for zingers, and that his strategy was different than Obama’s. It seemed like he was waiting for the perfect chance for the KGB comment, and Obama was pushing forward his policies and then getting a little frustrated because McCain really wasn’t answering them, rather thinking up future soundbites. Funny comment about the “strategy” and “tactic.”

    I am early in my training to be a foreign policy buff, but I suspect that McCain (if elected) would be very aggressive with world leaders, especially the ones he doesn’t like. This would probably be different with Obama, who would probably come in with a plan and treat the leader like an old friend rather than engage in a brawl.

    In the end, I think Obama would far better, but that is why I support him.

  35. pacer521 Says:


    yeah, the polls really can’t be stable until the next day. I would look this afternoon for a reliable poll, then use it. Very interesting numbers. Thanks for the polling info over at your blog as well.


  36. If post-debate polling is any indication… I think we may see a bounce for Obama.

    What is the most damaging about this performance by McCain is how poorly it was received by women voters. According to CNN’s post-debate poll, women favored Obama’s performance by a 59%-31% margin.

  37. neilmckentyweblog2 Says:

    I think on the twin issues of the economy and the Iraq war Obama pulverized McCain and McCain really couldn’t afford to lose this one. I think McCain is now toast and that will become clear to all when he has to replace the hapless Palin.

  38. Pat Says:


    Thanks for your comment on my post and kudos on a superb analysis. I’m definitely going to read more of your work.

    As a scientist with a fluent knowledge of statistics and survey methodology, I have a natural mistrust of poll numbers. I’d put forward the following to account for the Obama “win” so far as the surveys are concerned:

    I perceive most “undecided” voters actually lean heavily Obama. These are the voters who like Obama, agree with him to a large degree, but somewhere along the line got hit broadside by one or more of the GOP smears, designed to implant fear and associate uncertainty with Obama. They’re subliminally looking for some reassurance that Obama’s not the socialist baby-killing anti-American militant Muslim they make him out to be. And I think they would have largely found that last night, so I think what the debate accomplished was pushing those “undecided” voters who wanted to vote for Obama to relieve their last misconceptions or reservations. I think the fact that McCain kept harping on the “Sen. Obama just doesn’t understand” mantra is evidence for this effect — he surely understands that the more people get to know/see Obama, the fewer irrational fears these people are going to have about him, so he’s got to implant something a little less esoteric. I hope people see through it — as I indicated I felt Obama’s answers were far more direct and indicated a better and broader understanding, but I suppose (in keeping with the Rove-ian tactics) if you say it enough times, some people will probably believe it.

    That said, I think the only true “undecided” voters left out there are exactly the kind who’ll bite on the personal smears and zingers. Lets face it, if you haven’t made up your mind one way or another by now you’re probably not voting on the important issues. And honestly, I think the GOP has historically had a better handle on how to push those voters in their direction. That’s the only thing I worry about coming out of this last month or so.

  39. pacer521 Says:


    although I don’t think he is toast, McCain did lose a lot of style points on this one.

  40. pacer521 Says:


    Thanks for the comment and feel free to look at more of my work — always appreciated.

    As far as the polls being misused and off — to answer your second paragraph, I am a thirteen year old kid in seventh grade and I still have a mistrust for polls. You obviously know more about them, though.

    I do think that the undecideds are leaning more towards Obama, and this nation-wide debate helped to Max out the baby-killing Muslim trait that he is accused of. Great point there.

    I do worry about the undecideds left out are going to fall for that zingers as well. I think to sum it up — mccain is good with gullible voters (the bulk of the US) and Obama really appeals to the intellectuals. The only problem that we have seen in the last two elections is that there are more gullible voters than intellectuals.

    thanks for the comment!

  41. arkangel3 Says:

    I looked into John McCain’s eyes and saw “W-W-3”

  42. forumfuture Says:

    obama always leads over McCain election will be a tough one though for McCain.

  43. Will Says:


    I’m not looking to be convinced to vote for anyone, i’m looking to understand the economic belief that making it more expensisve to run a business in America (raising taxes on business but closing loopholes) can possibly be good for the middle class?

    Logic tells me that if it costs more to produce a widget, the widget will either be more expensive, and/or employee will be let go.

    Or worst yet, the production will be outsourced to a country where it is more fiscally reasonable to run a company?

    Listen, i’m just trying to understand the 2 policies. Lowering taxes on business makes sense to me. I suppose the theory is that if you tax businesses, that money will just come out of their profits and they won’t pass the expenses down to the customer. Maybe….but i’m not seeing that.

    So pacer – i’m not asking about obama vs maccain.

  44. pacer521 Says:

    Arkangel 3,

    No comment here.


    Thanks for the compliment and comment.

  45. pacer521 Says:


    I agree with what you are getting too, but you really need to make a decision. I am pretty pissed off because I am not old enough to vote. Whether it is Ralph Nater or the libertarian party, you still need to find the guy who you think can lead the country.

  46. wavemaker2 Says:

    Yea, I pretty much would say BOTH was a draw last night!! BUT, YOU really had to listen to the sometime’s and maybe’s they put in there answer’s.. But, VERY MUCH looking forward to the V.P.’S Debate!! til l8er

  47. Bell Says:

    True. It really is a red state, and considering this, Obama did amazing.

    Okay, here’s a thought. Why does my computer still do a red dotted line underneath “Obama” as if it is misspelled. I mean, he’s going to be the president. We can accept O-b-a-m-a as a word now.


  48. Mark Richardson Says:

    I am a big Obama supporter, so I am biased. On the issues I agree with Obama across the board. But I believe the polls show Obama “winning” the debate because McCain seemed rather odd. To me he came across as angry and socially uncomfortable. When Obama made the Bomb Bomb Iran comment I could see McCain grinding his teeth and looking like he was fighting back the urge to explode.

    With that said, both candidates were refreshingly more coherent then W. Smart men who clearly understood what they were saying.

  49. pacer521 Says:


    Yeah, well to me I hope he is president on a personal note, but we really have to see. This is the very interesting part of the election where it hasn’t hit us yet that our leader could be Sarah palin. Thanks for the comment


  50. pacer521 Says:

    Mark richardson,

    Thanks for the comment. McCain did seem rather odd, but I think this is because his overall strategy was to deliver several catch phrases and soundbites. I agree with your last point.


  51. dustinroberts Says:

    Good analysis and on target. I hope that the majority will see this with as much clarity.

    What did you think about the body language?

  52. huxbux Says:

    One of the reasons this blog is a notch above most is because, despite being an Obama supporter, pacer examines every issue, as best he can, in an unbiased light. I’m in fact an Obama supporter which in turn, contrary to most people, causes me to look more critically at the candidate I support. It’s always been my mindset that I need to either invalidate or validate my candidate via examination, rather then applying a predisposed viewpoint against what a McCain happens to say. It’s better to deconstruct a candidate based on the message they convey, and not deconstruct a what a candidate says based on the candidate himself.

    For instance, McCain’s comments about the KGB and strategy/tactics seemed to rile some people. And from a connotative examination, it was pandering akin to an advertising slogan. But from an intellectual level(which I find a perplexing tendency of Obama supporters to make the claim of intellectual superiority when in fact it’s merely a matter of oratory articulation), those advertising slogans have intellectual validity.

    I’d suggest anyone who found McCain’s KGB and strategy/tactic comments pandering to go research Russian political history alongside current political trends in Russia. Read up on the evolution of military doctrine since the Vietnam War and you’ll find a clear delineation in understanding the application of both strategy and tactics in armed conflict, and specifically how the failure to successfully incorporate both leads to an ineffectual military campaign. Truth be told, Obama could have turned the strategy/tactic comment against McCain which only goes to tell me Obama doesn’t have a clear understanding between the underlying differences between the two.

    McCain isn’t a moron. There was substance behind some(read not all) of his zingers and soundbites. He’s just a terrible orator and communicator. It’s almost as if he’s tossing them out hoping you do the leg work and take a deeper look. So, for all us Obama “intellectuals”, let’s start deconstructing what McCain said rather then dismissing them on the merits of banality. If we can’t find anything underneath the hood then we can call a platitude a platitude.

    After that we can hire McCain a debate coach so we can all avoid those one liners in the next debate. 🙂

  53. pacer521 Says:


    I really can’t say much else but thank you for those amazing comments. Everything you said is true and I agree with, so I’ll keep this comment short and let people read yours, just thanks a lot.


  54. chamay0 Says:

    Hi pacer521. I thought your approach was well written and sound. You’re viewpoint was mostly along the lines as I saw it as well. I felt McCain spent way too much time giving history lessons and not enough about the future. Much less did he address the needs of change or middle America. McCain also consistently kept using his favorite catch words, I can fix it.

    Mostly I found McCain’s posture and body language the most offensive. He came off as angry, old and grumpy. It was easy to see that he held Obama in contempt which is a definite turn off. Although McCain is the senior he showed no signs of respecting his opponent and portrayed an attitude of I’m ready to fight, another turn off.

  55. pacer521 Says:


    Thanks for the compliment and comment. I agree with you in every sense, the past seems like a big thing for McCain. I totally agree with your last paragraph, the body language didn’t help in the respect category at all.


  56. Anthony Says:

    Pacer: Nice wrapup, particularly the point about Obama winning with policies, not soundbites. My point exactly. I think he’ll shake things up in Washington, and only time will tell whether it will be for good or for ill.

  57. Dave Says:

    If we took a poll, how many viewers could accurately identify what the KGB was (is)? With the current view of history as comprising “now” and “olden times,” the KGB is a reference to “olden times.” The reference shows how much McCain is stuck in the 70’s. The good or bad part, depending on your point of view,is that most viewers are still probably trying to figure out what a “cagey bee” is.

  58. pacer521 Says:


    Thanks. I guess he just needs to get to washington first, though. And that worries me.


    I can see your point. I am thirteen, and I can tell you for a fact that none of my friends know who the KGB is (or was), they are more like a “cagey bee” to them. And to tell you the truth, if I hadn’t read up on foreign policy books, I wouldn’t have known who they are (or were) either.

  59. secret2secret Says:

    Very nice take on the debates and very well written. I’m not a political blogger at all. I’m not even sure what type of blogger I am yet, so I have no problem admitting that you, at thirteen, know more about politics than I do.

  60. marc515515 Says:

    “I am thirteen.”

    Wow. And I am speechless.

    Best of luck to you, Pacer. If this blog is any indication, you have a brilliant future ahead of you.

  61. Josh Says:

    The polls do seem to be supporting the “Obama won” theory. A link and some comments are here:

    (Pacer, your blog is amazing. Nice work. I’m sure by 9th grade, you’ll be a staff advisor to the Obama re-election campaign!)

  62. pacer521 Says:


    We all have our strengths — I bet you know more about — “secrets” than me….I guess

  63. pacer521 Says:


    Hey, thanks for the link, great post you got there. He’s got to be elected first — but I have two years to get some sort of writing column.


    I am speechless as well — thanks for the great compliments.

  64. dylanfreak Says:

    Thanks for your kind comments on my post, titled “Thank you Doctor Paul!” (Green Means Impeach). I am putting your website on my blogroll.

  65. pacer521 Says:

    Hey, thanks. Blogroll additions always welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: