For a while there, it looked like this debate might not happen with McCain “suspending” his campaign.
The first question about debates is: Do they matter? According to Mark Blumenthal, there is a great potential for debates to influence public opinion because they are watched by so many people.
Four years ago, according to Nielsen Media Research, 62.5 million Americans watched the first debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush. That fell short of the record 80.6 million that saw Ronald Reagan debate Jimmy Carter in 1980, but it was an enormous audience nonetheless.
Tom Holbrook looked at all Presidential debates from 1988 to 2004 and found that:
Across all thirteen presidential debates the average absolute change in candidate support was 1 percentage point. There are a few notable exceptions, of course. Two that stand out are the second debate in 1992, following which George H.W. Bush lost 2 points, and first debate of 2004, after which George W. Bush lost 2.26 points.
Gallup also looked at debates in 1960 and 1976-2004 and found that debates have little impact.
In two election years, the presidential debates may have had a meaningful impact on the structure of the presidential races; in most others, they probably have not. The debates were less likely to be catalyst events in years when one candidate was a strong front-runner, including 1984, 1988, and 1996. However, in highly competitive election years, any movement in voter preferences can be race altering, and the debates seem to have the potential to produce such movement. The probable examples of this are 1960 and 2000.
I am looking forward to this debate as it is focused on foreign policy and national security, topics that have receded into the background due to economic turmoil but where McCain inexplicably holds a lead despite his crazy war-like ideas.
9:02pm: I just finished calling voters for the Obama campaign with a number of other volunteers. Now I am watching the debate with 15 other people on MSNBC.
9:06pm: First question is about the financial crisis. Obama going first. Worst crisis since Great Depression. Move swiftly and wisely. Oversight. Helping homeowners. Bush policies, supported by McCain, responsible.
McCain starts with Kennedy being in the hospital. McCain not feeling too great about things lately. Republicans and Democrats together. End of the beginning of the crisis.
9:10pm: Lehrer asked about voting on the plan. Both Obama and McCain try to steer discussion away.
9:12pm: Obama brings up McCain’s statement of 10 days ago about economic fundamentals being good.
9:14pm: McCain criticizing Republican spending.
9:16pm: Obama compares scale of earmarks with McCain’s tax proposal cost.
9:21pm: McCain is stuck on earmarks.
9:27pm: Indepence from oil would be good but what is this foreign oil independence Obama’s talking about?
9:29pm: McCain comes back to cutting spending.
9:35pm: Did McCain just oppose foreign aid?
9:38pm: Obama ties McCain to Bush spending. McCain mentions not winning Miss Congeniality for the second time.
9:39pm: Finally, Iraq!
Obama brings back the question of lessons of Iraq to whether we should have gone to war in the first place. Have to use military wisely.
McCain says next President won’t be deciding decision to go to Iraq.
9:44pm: Why is McCain making faces and smirking so much?
9:47pm: Can everyone stop kissing General Petraeus’s ass?
9:50pm: Now on to Afghanistan. Obama argues for more troops. Did Obama just pronounce Taliban correctly? Iraq had no al-Qaeda. Iraq war a strategic mistake. Afghanistan and Pakistan. Got to deal with Pakistan. Safe haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda. Pakistan not doing enough to get rid of them.
9:53pm: McCain says don’t say out loud about attacking Pakistan. Same strategy as Iraq.
9:56pm: Obama mentions McCain’s song about “Bomb, bomb Iran.”
9:57pm: Obama says we coddled Musharraf and alienated Pakistani people. McCain replies that Pakistan was a failed state when Musharraf came to power.
10:00pm: McCain and Obama are trading stories of soldiers killed in action. WTF?
10:03pm: McCain Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is an existential threat to Israel. Mentions Holocaust. Whatever happened to Israel’s nuclear weapons? McCain talks about League of Democracies. Wow, France is a democracy now. Iranian nuclear weapons are threat around the world.
10:06pm: Obama says Iran has gained lots of influence due to Iraq war. Cannot tolerate nuclear Iran. Arms race in Middle East. Cooperation needed from Russia and China for sanctions. Engage in tough diplomacy with Iran.
10:08pm: How does talking to Ahmedinijad legitimize him? Did Reagan never talk to Brezhnev? That sounds wrong.
10:10pm: Obama citing Kissinger approvingly. I feel like ewww but have to admit Kissinger is right on talking to Iran.
10:12pm: Obama mentions McCain not meeting with Spanish Prime Minister. McCain in response tries to joke about the Presidential seal replica from the Obama primary campaign.
10:16pm: Obama says Russia has to withdraw from South Osettia and Abkhazia. Membership action plan for Ukraine and Georgia: Why, Obama, why? Obama doesn’t want cold war posture with Russia.
McCain says Obama is naive. McCain wants to bolster friends and allies. Talks about oil.
10:20pm: McCain has mentioned his trips to a lot of countries today.
10:23pm: Why did Obama have to mention “clean coal”? Arrrgh!
10:26pm: Stupidest question today: Chance of another 9/11 attack on the US? McCain says much less. McCain just came out against torture. Good for him!
10:29pm: Obama comes out against nuclear suitcases? What about nuclear backpacks? The point about nuclear proliferation is good though.
Obama also mentions torture.
10:31pm: McCain goes back to Iraq with a totally wrong but strong ending.
Obama mentions al-Qaeda and challenges with China and both being neglected due to focus on Iraq. Blames Iraq war for autism too! Too scattershot for a strong summing up.
10:34pm: McCain is now talking again, destroying the impression I had of his strong ending.
10:36pm: And finally McCain mentions his POW status.
I would rate it a draw. Obama didn’t land any knockout punches.
12:47am: CBS News poll of undecided voters:
Thirty-nine percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate tonight thought Barack Obama was the winner. Twenty-four percent thought John McCain won. Thirty-seven percent saw it as a draw.
Forty-six percent of uncommitted voters said their opinion of Obama got better tonight. Thirty-two percent said their opinion of McCain got better.
Sixty-six percent of uncommitted voters think Obama would make the right decisions about the economy. Forty-two percent think McCain would.
Forty-eight percent of these voters think Obama would make the right decisions about Iraq. Fifty-six percent think McCain would.
That sounds good for Obama.
1:23am: CNN’s polling is even better.
You can watch the debate online or read the transcript.