Friday, October 01, 2004

On Understanding the Presidential Debates

I work on Thursday nights, so I missed last night's Presidential debate. Mind you, as a Canadian citizen I don't have as much invested in this campaign as people south of the border. But as an observer of American society I can offer a few thoughts.

Pundits are calling this either a tie or a victory for John Kerry. Having heard a radio excerpt this morning, I tend towards the latter (Kerry has a better voice for radio than George Bush), but rendering judgement is a little premature. I'd argue that unless there's a real major gaffe -- and apparently there were none last night -- the winner of the election isn't the one who wins the debate. It's the one who learns from the previous debate and acts accordingly.

Al Gore never learned, in 2000. He blew the debates -- and his lead in the polls -- because he ignored the advice people were giving him about his style. Ignoring advisors can sometimes work when the advice is all over the spectrum, but when most of them said the same thing ("Don't exaggerate!") he should have realized he was doing something wrong.

Now the upcoming debate is on domestic issues. It's an area where Bush is weak, and Kerry has ammunition (how big is the deficit again?). Bush knows this. He also knows he needs to improve his debate performance (don't pause too long, don't look tongue-tied).

Prediction? Bush should do better than normal expectations. He should hold his own.

Another observation: Kerry shouldn't get too complacent. He did well enough, and the circumstances are such that he will feel confident about going on the attack in round 2. But these are the right sort of circumstances in which mistakes are made. And with the Senator's luck lately, if he makes a gaffe, it'll be just the type that will cost him the election.