Thursday, October 16, 2008

Perception is Everything

We don't just watch presidential debates anymore. We watch, we watch other people watch, we watch a graph show us how independent voters react, we watch news people tell us how they did and how we think it went.

I watched the last debate. It was a tough choice, as our inattentiveness apparently torpedoed Joe Torre's chances to go to the World Series with his Dodgers. I feel bad about that.

But it felt important to know how John McCain and Barack Obama would handle this last face to face meeting. And I know what I thought, but I was amazed how much more information I got thanks to the voracious appetite of the 24 hour news cycle.

CNN's roundtable of experts, many of whom I enjoy thoroughly, were unanimous - this was McCain's best debate yet. Obama, they said, was 'flat' and 'professorial.'

But as the polls of viewers came in, the tone changed. Yes, McCain had some good moments and started off strong, but polls (in their infinitely important way) clearly showed that voters walked away perceiving Obama as the stronger candidate. His numbers improved, while McCain's fell yet again. And then the talk began about why that might be.

"Those reaction shots killed him," I heard.

That's my opinion, too. McCain has the unfortunate habit of looking angry even when he's trying to smile. His 'fighter' persona comes across as hostile. He widened his eyes in mock shock on a few occasions, and it triggered memories of every angry, closed-minded discussion I ever had with my father. I loved my dad, but I didn't enjoy those discussions and I instinctively cringe from that body language.

Obama's 'professorial' demeanor was fine with me. He appears steady and deliberate and very, very difficult to rattle. His temper flared briefly just for a moment or two, but I've said before that I like that - I want to know he CAN get angry, I just want him to have it under control. He did.

And what about those stupid graphs we watched as the debate went on? Women clearly were happier with what they were hearing from the Democrat. And men? What were they doing? Those lines were all over the place on several they were grabbing for a snack and hit the button by accident, or maybe playing with the knob to watch the lines move. It seemed to have no relation to what was being said. What those lines did was distract me from what the candidates were saying. I don't need another source to tell me what people are thinking. This isn't politics by committee - when we go in that voting booth we'll each be totally alone.

Today we'll see what the pundits say. Their initial enthusiasm for McCain will be tempered by the fact that voters apparently didn't agree with them. I think McCain did a fine job, as good as he's capable of doing. He made some points that I agreed with, or at least understood his point of view. But his barely repressed anger, his dogged refusal to give up a point when it's been answered time and time again and his insistence that he knows what to do...when I'm convinced this situation is so complex that right now NO ONE knows exactly what will work, made the difference between the candidates clear.

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