Halfway through the third and final debate last night between John Kerry and George W. Bush, I was ready for a nap. And that's saying something: Not only was I plenty rested -- I'd slept in -- I was watching with the America's Future Foundation gang, a group of twentysomething conservatives and libertarians who watch debates like they're football games: plenty of beer and lots of cheers, boos, and yelling at the screen. But I was yawning as I scribbled in my notepad ("K: health care system ZZZZ..."), and the crowd seemed restless, with lots of attrition away from the TV screens and towards conversations in the back of the room.
I yield to few in my tolerance for wonkiness, and if I was bored, it's hard to imagine swing voters -- typically a group that is especially disengaged from politics -- absorbing a great deal of what was said. Both candidates quoted so many numbers that the average head must have been spinning: there were nine references to the number of times that John Kerry voted for or against one thing or another, 29 percentages, 46 dollar amounts. If you listened closely, and you could almost hear all the televisions flipping over to baseball.
Among those who watched the whole thing, neither candidate built up a huge advantage. Both were fairly engaged, and both did their share of inappropriately smug smirking in the cutaways. And both candidates had their share of zingers -- Bush observing that PAYGO means "You pay, and he goes ahead and spends," Kerry comparing "being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility" to "Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country."
When a debate is a draw or near-draw, the post debate spin-war becomes doubly important. Some of the CNN talking heads were calling it a "decisive" win for Kerry, which is crazy, but it wouldn't be the first time that a rather dubious assessment like that became the conventional wisdom. The denizens of the mainstream media may be expected to tilt toward Kerry for several reasons. First, they're liberals, of course. Second, many of them have been convinced by liberal media critics that they were too hard on Gore and not hard enough on Bush in 2000, and are consciously or subconsciously overcompensating. Third, there's an inherent bias in election coverage against incumbents and toward tight races, for simple psychological reasons: political reporters want to report things that sound exciting and important. The potential for change, and unpredictability, simply makes a better storyline.
All that said, the media's influence is finite, and the story that our esteemed press corps tells can change rather quickly given the right catalyst, such as a gaffe or a shift in the polls. In as much as it seemed never to end, last night's debate may be a good preview of the next two weeks.
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