Presidential historians like to note that people who listened to the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate on the radio thought Nixon had won it, but the rest of America, who saw it on TV, took a look at the pale and sweaty Nixon next to the handsome and collected Kennedy, and gave it to the Massachusetts senator hands down. This debate was sort of like that. Everyone seems to agree that McCain gave his best debate performance yet, pressing Obama on issues and even getting some good lines — but on the split screen, he looked angry, agitated and a little weird. Whereas Obama did his Obama thing: stayed calm, stayed cool and stayed looking like he wasn’t going to go off on an uncontrollable spasm of anger. The end result: in a whole bunch of snap polls, Obama carried the debate by close to 2-to-1 margins.
The big difference between this debate and the Kennedy-Nixon debate, mind you, is that back in 1960 there was no YouTube, which allows people to make their favorite “angry, unsettled McCain moment” mashups from now until election day. McCain has totally lost control of his image; it’s in the hands not of pundits but of sporky college sophomores, uploading little videos long the merry day. That really is the new wrinkle (so to speak) of this particular presidential cycle.
I’m not going to say “it’s hard to see how McCain comes back from this,” because three weeks is three weeks and who knows what’s going to happen, and I’m superstitious about smugness and hubris and counting one’s chickens not just before they hatch, but before the eggs are laid. There’s still an election to have, and Obama and everyone else has to work for it. I don’t think Obama needs to be told that; I think many of his triumphalist pals might have to be taken aside and to keep their mouths shut and heads down until November 5.
However, I am going to say that I don’t think McCain gets out of the hole from here. Pro pundits say that this last debate didn’t change the dynamic of the race, but when you have one candidate snap polling at a 2-to-1 advantage to the other, that’s an odd thing to say. The dynamic changes, it just changes further to the advantage of Obama and to the Democrats generally. At this point, I don’t think the question is whether Obama’s going to win; the question is how big he’s going to win, and whether his momentum gets him 60 Democratic senators going in.
The comment thread is now open to your thoughts about the last debate; I’m also particularly interested in whether you see a path for McCain out of his particular hole, after this last big chance to make his case to voters. I can’t see one, but maybe I’m missing something. Let me know if you think I am.