The Plank

Why Voters Thought Obama Won (and Why The Pundits Didn't Get It)


has the internals of the CNN poll of debate-watchers, which had Obama
winning overall by a margin of 51-38. The poll suggests that Obama is
opening up a gap on connectedness, while closing a gap on readiness.Specifically,
by a 62-32 margin, voters thought that Obama was “more in touch with
the needs and problems of people like you”. This is a gap that has no
doubt grown because of the financial crisis of recent days. But it also
grew because Obama was actually speaking to middle class voters. Per
the transcript,
McCain never once mentioned the phrase “middle class” (Obama did so
three times). And Obama’s eye contact was directly with the camera,
i.e. the voters at home. McCain seemed to be speaking literally to the
people in the room in Mississippi, but figuratively to the punditry. It
is no surprise that a small majority of pundits seemed to have thought
that McCain won, even when the polls indicated otherwise; the pundits
were his target audience.Something
as simple as Obama mentioning that he’ll cut taxes for “95 percent of
working families” is worth, I would guess, a point or so in the
national polls. Obama had not been speaking enough about his middle
class tax cut; there was some untapped potential there, and Obama may
have gotten the message to sink in tonight.By contrast, I don’t
think McCain’s pressing Obama on earmarks was time well spent for him.
One, it simply not something that voters care all that much about,
given the other pressures the economy faces. But also, it is not
something that voters particularly associate with Obama, as the McCain
campaign had not really pressed this line of attack. If you’re going to
introduce a new line of attack late in a campaign, it has better be a
more effective one that earmarks. And then there was McCain's
technocratic line about the virtues of lowering corporate taxes, one
which might represent perfectly valid economic policy, but which was
exactly the sort of patrician argument that lost George H.W. Bush the
election in 1992. Meanwhile, voters thought that Obama “seemed
to be the stronger leader” by a 49-43 margin, reversing a traditional
area of McCain strength. And voters thought that the candidates were
equally likely to be able to handle the job of president if elected.These
internals are worse for McCain than the topline results, because they
suggest not only that McCain missed one of his few remaining
opportunities to close the gap with Barack Obama, but also that he has
few places to go. The only category in which McCain rated significantly
higher than Obama was on “spent more time attacking his opponent”.
McCain won that one by 37 points.My other annoyance with the
punditry is that they seem to weight all segments of the debate
equally. There were eight segments in this debate: bailout, economy,
spending, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, terrorism. The pundit
consensus seems to be that Obama won the segments on the bailout, the
economy, and Iraq, drew the segment on Afghanistan, and lost the other
four. So, McCain wins 4-3, right? Except that, voters don’t weight
these issues anywhere near evenly. In Peter Hart’s recent poll for NBC,
43 percent of voters listed the economy or the financial crisis as
their top priority, 12 percent as Iraq, and 13 percent terrorism or
other foreign policy issues. What happens if we give Obama two out of
three economic voters (corresponding to the fact that he won two out of
the three segments on the economy), and the Iraq voters, but give
McCain all the “other foreign policy” voters?Issue Priority Obama McCainEconomy 43 --> 29 14Iraq 12 --> 12 0Foreign Policy 13 --> 0 13==========================================Total 41 27By this measure, Obama “won” by 14 points, which almost exactly his margin in the CNN poll.McCain’s essential problem is that his fundamental strength – his experience -- is specifically not viewed by voters as carrying over to the economy. And the economy is pretty much all that voters care about these days.EDIT: The CBS poll
of undecideds has more confirmatory detail. Obama went from a +18 on
"understanding your needs and problems" before the debate to a +56 (!)
afterward. And he went from a -9 on "prepared to be president" to a +21.

--Nate Silver 

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