John, McCain’s performance last week wasn’t all bad. He did manage to come up with a concrete idea for purchasing bad debt and provide reasoned opposition (beginning over the weekend) to the Paulson “blank check” plan. (And while I think the call to fire Chris Cox was excessive, McCain is not the only one to find that the SEC as been less than a paragon of regulatory acumen under Cox’s watch.)
And after a market meltdown and the missteps you outlined, he’s still in the race (all caveats apply to all polls). He must be downright giddy to be within the margin of error in places like Pennsylvania and ahead by a tad in Florida and Ohio. (As a political matter, his attacks on Obama’s affiliations with Freddie, Fannie and Rezko and his partial success in shifting the argument from the economy to reform–not to mention an absence of any impressive action by Obama, which McCain is now exploiting in ads–likely account for his ability to hang tight.)
With a race still close, you are right that the debates take on enormous significance. It is no surprise that the expectations-lowering game is already in full swing. The New York Times helpfully lowers them for Barack Obama:
Mr. Obama has a tendency to overintellectualize and to lecture, befitting his training as a lawyer and law professor. He exudes disdain for the quips and sound bites that some deride as trivializing political debates but that have become a central part of scoring them. He tends to the earnest and humorless when audiences seem to crave passion and personality. He frequently rises above the mire of political combat when the battle calls for engagement.
Gee, with this record, you wonder why the Times didn’t raise his appalling debating skills earlier:
One of Mr. Obama’s worst moments came in the first Democratic debate, in South Carolina in April 2007. The candidates were asked how they would respond to a new series of terrorist attacks. Mrs. Clinton gave a short answer, ending, “Let’s focus on those who have attacked us and do everything we can to destroy them.” But Mr. Obama gave a rambling reply on emergency response, intelligence flaws and the importance of engaging “the international community.” He had to ask for a second chance to answer the question in order to say he would go after the terrorists. Two months later he was on the defensive over a question of meeting without preconditions with the leaders of hostile states. He said that he would do so and that he disagreed with the Bush administration’s approach of not engaging with Iran, Syria, Cuba and North Korea. His rivals cited this as evidence of his naïveté in foreign affairs. Perhaps Mr. Obama’s single worst debate moment came early this January in New Hampshire, where Mrs. Clinton was asked why some people found her less likable than some of her rivals. She adopted a hurt tone and said of Mr. Obama: “He’s very likable, I agree with that. But I don’t think I’m that bad.” Mr. Obama looked at her and said coldly, “You’re likable enough.”
But the reality is that both candidates need to do well. Obama needs to do what Ronald Reagan did in 1980–convince voters he’s not a nut and can be trusted as commander-in-chief. And McCain needs to convince voters the opposite is true. McCain will never have a better chance with more viewers and less media filter to make his case.
One final point on winning the race: the big question is which and how many people turn out. Are the anecdotal bits of evidence of huge Palin-induced crowds a reliable indicator that the base has come home and will show up in huge numbers as they did in 2004? Will Obama be able to turn out all those college kids? (On turnout, my own sense is that the McCain death-struggle with the media and food fight with the Obama camp generally benefit him–by engaging angry conservatives and depressing young voters who hoped for so much more from their guy than nasty ads which not even the MSM can stomach any longer.) On that issue polls are generally of little use.