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August 23, 2014

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Why the punditocracy can’t be trusted to provide meaningful analysis of debate

In this swing state, on the most swinging streets in the world, national pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News on Friday night what turned out to be the survey consensus after the debate:

Standing in front of the Polo Towers on the Strip, Luntz revealed that a carefully chosen group of 30 undecided Southern Nevada voters “thought that Barack Obama did a little better” than John McCain. Polls for CNN and CBS News showed clear national margins for Obama, and here in Nevada, which Luntz said some people think “will determine the presidency,” McCain needed a lift to mitigate daunting Democratic registration gains and a resurgent Democratic Party organization.

After one of the worst fortnights in presidential campaign history, with his oscillations on the bailout and bizarre campaign suspension (except for all those ads and state organizations purring along), the fundamentals of McCain’s campaign are not sound.

What struck me amid the usual post-debate bloviating by the punditrocracy and the ridiculous ritual of partisans telling the media what to write about how wonderfully well their guy did (Lewis Carroll would have had a field day), the desperation to stop the hemorrhaging by the McCain campaign was manifest. No one watching that debate could have believed McCain scored a convincing victory (for the record, this bloviating pundit thought the Republican nominee had his moments but Obama was solid enough to achieve a draw).

But the McCain campaign immediately inundated my inbox with e-mail bursting with snippets of quotes from various journalists, implying they had declared McCain the victor (even Henry Kissinger sided with his friend, John McCain!).

The McCain campaign even played ventriloquist with McCain’s Nevada chairman, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki:

“This week John McCain once again demonstrated to Nevadans that the needs of our country are paramount to any political campaign. John McCain unilaterally suspended his campaign to devote all his energies on the economic crisis and tonight McCain demonstrated his unparalleled foreign policy credentials when compared to the naive and ill informed.”

Anyone think Krolicki thought of that after the debate? But I, like many Nevadans, thank him for telling me what to think.

This silly spinning can’t change the dynamic of the race any more than the debate did. History shows that unless a candidate is freeing Eastern Europe from Soviet hegemony or telling his younger foe he won’t make his age an issue, presidential debates generally last in memory about as long as the average 30-second campaign ad. And that is always problematic for the candidate running behind — in this case, McCain, who was cut badly after his disastrous week, obviously part of the reason he reversed himself and flew to Ole Miss just in time for the debate.

While most people’s eyes were glazing over with the blizzard of world leaders’ names, and while I am sure Luntz’s focus group wasn’t much affected by it, Obama’s Nevada folks hoped to capitalize on the surprising injection of Yucca Mountain into the debate. McCain didn’t mention the proposed dump site by name, but reaffirmed his support by more than once assailing Obama on nuclear power and saying he “opposes both storing and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Saturday that the Democratic nominee, who has no real record on the issue but has said he is against opening Yucca, “is not opposed to additional nuclear but wants a better plan for storage and safety.” Ah, but where? He did not say.

I still don’t believe the issue moves many voters. But even if it motivates a few in this swing state, it could be important.

Meanwhile, serious questions linger about whether Obama, who has been in national politics for a cup of coffee, has the experience and toughness to sit across from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vs. the question of whether McCain’s default position will be to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.

I don’t presume to divine how most Nevadans, or most Americans, felt about McCain trying to reinforce Obama’s supposed inability “to understand” a variety of foreign policy conundrums or how the audience perceived Obama’s rhythmic chiding of McCain for being “wrong” on the Iraq war.

For now, though, all that matters to the campaigns is that — if the polls are correct — McCain is bleeding and he did not apply a tourniquet Friday. So we move on to the next phase of the campaign as the vice presidential debate looms, with another inane ritual beginning — the lowering of expectations, especially for Sarah Palin, whom Plouffe on Saturday risibly called a “world-class debater.”

I wonder if Joe Biden will ask her how she feels about Yucca Mountain ...

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