DAILY SERIES: Why Obama Won
Posted Nov 05, 2008 at 3:00 AM by Maurice Berger
In the next ten days, PollTrack will issue a daily report methodically examining the outcome of the 2008 presidential cycle. Today's post isolates a major turning point in the race: the first debate. In the wake of this event, the Democrat's numbers not only improved, they remained relatively stable until Election Day. As has been discussed before in this blog, the 2008 race was very similar to the 1980 race between incumbent (and politically battered) Democratic president Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan. Like Obama, pundits (and many Americans) viewed Reagan as too out of touch with the middle of the nation, a far-right Cold Warrior with domestic politics to match. In other words, he did not fit the expectations of what many believed an electable candidate. In order to win, he needed to allay these fears, proving he had the temperament to be commander-in-chief. In Barack Obama's case, his relative youth, modest experience on the national stage, left-of-center politics, and, most important, his race made him a somewhat unlikely candidate for president in a center-right country with a long history of problematic race relations and racism. The remarkable thing about debates is that they are like a great equalizer. Placing two candidates side-by-side, they allow the country to size them up, both individually and relative to each other. PollTrack believes the first debate was a crucial turning point for the Democrat, not surprising as this blog has often noted: in every competitive cycle in which debates were held since 1960, they proved to be a consequential if not determining factor in the outcome. As PollTrack wrote about the power of these debates (in this case, the Reagan-Carter match): "Indeed, it was not until the last week of the 1980 campaign, another trying economic time, that Ronald Reagan wrapped up the election, having convinced millions of voters through calming and commanding debate performance that he was not the right-wing extremist some feared. The present-day economic meltdown, and the anxiety it engenders in voters, has created an opening for Obama." Indeed, it is PollTrack's belief that Obama's steady, calm, and authoritative performance in the first debate afforded him a game-changing opportunity to seal the deal with a wary, but also economically and politically demoralized electorate eager for CHANGE, the code word of the entire election cycle as it turns out.