Look, there were polls that showed Edwards edging Cheney in the 2004 vice presidential debate and that doesn’t change my evaluation of who won that exchange in the least. Obviously, pre-election debates are ultimately remembered for their political impact, which sometimes goes against who won on debating points. Nixon-Kennedy 1960 and the Bush-Gore debate in 2000 are two examples that quickly come to mind. I don’t at all dispute that apolitical people are going to judge these things differently than well informed people and that there is some benefit to trying to get inside their heads — and casting aside ideololgy — to assess electoral impact. Ultimately, what the candidates need to do in these debates and the rest of the campaign is try to win votes.
But for journalists writing for an informed audience, I think there is more to analyzing these things than just trying to guess the outcome of (sometimes dubious) post-debate snap polls. And even though we all know what the political impact of that famous Bush-Gore debate was, I’m not going to pretend that Bush won that one on debating points just because Gore sighed a lot and turned off voters by acting like a jerk. If the political environment is such that a plurality of voters prefer a Democrat so long as he seems likable, competent, and reasonable, Obama is likely to “win” all of the debates no matter what McCain does. In the first debate, there is a sense in which Obama won just by getting McCain to show up.
UPDATE: This Nate Silver post over at TNR strikes me as a pretty good explanation for why the polls say what they do and why us non-Quin pundits missed it.
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