Open University

Viewers V. Pundits

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By Cass Sunstein

Here is an oddity about last night's Democratic debate: Immediately after it concluded, the announcers on CNN went right to a discussion of the Obama/Clinton answers to the "would-you-meet-with-leaders-of-Iraq-Syria-Cuba-etc." question. The main conclusion, on the part of the key analyst (Jeff Toobin), was that Clinton had given a much better answer than Obama had, and that his answer showed his inexperience. Immediately thereafter, the announcers went to a focus group, which said that Obama had won the debate. (This was not a surprise: Whether or not Obama won--Clinton and Biden were also impressive, and Edwards had his moments--it was clearly Obama's strongest performance to date.)

The first thing to say about this is that some of the reports on focus groups were beyond laughable, because the differences were too small to have any significance. (The initial report in Obama's favor might have been ok; we don't have the numbers.) The second and more important item has to do with the difference between viewers' overall impressions and the media's intense interest in finding a "moment" that could be characterized as terrific or (better still) a gaffe. In a two-person race, Obama's suggestion that he would meet with the relevant leaders--hardly a real gaffe, in context--could easily be turned into a major campaign issue. (Just like Kerry's "global test" remark from the 2004 campaign, which was fine in context, but was turned, ridiculously, into a big issue.)

These made-up gaffes can be made to matter, and to stick, on condition that they can be connected with a damaging narrative about the candidate, such as, "Kerry wants to run everything by the United Nations." And indeed, the National Review on-line has already seized on Obama's remark to show that it reflects his inexperience. What is especially noteworthy is that even if a candidate does exceedingly well in a debate, and wins it according to independent or undecided voters, media attention to a single moment, or a made-up or supposed gaffe, can turn everything around. The moment ends up standing for the whole.

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