Man Without Qualities

Sunday, October 10, 2004

It's Cul-de-sac All Over Again II: The Substance of Style

Following the first presidential debate a prior post reviewed the Man Without Qualities's take on what I believe to be the most significant aspects of the styles of the two candidates:

Senator Kerry has a style that can impress up front, leaving the viewer (that is, the voter) only later to realize that the performance was not what it seemed to be. ... I think the problem for Senator Kerry is deeper than his gaffes. His problem is that the same style he employs to make much of so little works much better in the short run than it does in the medium or long run - as those terms might be meaningfully defined under the hot glare of this Presidential race. Worse, once the short-term effects start to dissipate, his style leave a sense of distrust ... of having been misled. ... Mr. Bush, on the other hand, has a style that can be less shark-like and impressive up front, but over time leaves one feeling that he - for all of what can seem to be his comparative inarticulateness - really understands the essentials better than the flashier Senator Kerry. In an odd way, it is Mr. Bush who leaves one more with the sense that he understands the "nuances." Further, I think that particular stylistic difference resonates more with women - and I also think that the enlarged image Senator Kerry presented on the "split screen" (of which too much has been made) will also resonate relatively poorly among women after the first flashes have subsided. In short, I don't think that Senator Kerry did much to shore up his "base" among women in the medium to long run of this campaign. I also think that Senator Kerry had to add some definition to his positions that he has kept carefully ambiguous to date on account of his split base. That should not, over time, work to his benefit. ... The bigger problem for the Republicans is that Mr. Bush's performance, while not really bad, showed Mr. Bush without direct, simple answers to entirely predictable and predicted questions and issues. ... A more disturbing error on the part of the Bush team is the undeniable fact that he looked and acted tired compared to John Kerry. ... But Mr. Bush won't commit that mistake again.

It appears to me that the ensuing performance of the candidates in the polls has been quite consistent with the above observations. The second debate has now come and gone, and Mr. Bush did not repeat his prior mistakes. But more importantly, Senator Kerry's slippage in the polls appears to have been well under way before the second debate, as the Rasmussen Report today notes:
Sunday October 10, 2004--The latest Rasmussen Reports Presidential Tracking Poll shows President George W. Bush with 50% of the vote and Senator John Kerry with 46%. Voters have declared the second Presidential debate a tie with fans of each candidate thinking that their man won. ...[J]ust over one-third of the interviews for today's update were completed after the conclusion of Friday night's Presidential debate. There was not a noticeable jump in the post-debate interviews, but it will take a few more days to fully measure the impact of the debate.

Recent Rasmussen Poll results seem to track a public that was for a few days pulled towards the Senator by his first debate performance, but then chose another direction despite Senator Kerry having "won" the post-debate "spin" cycle:


If I am correct that Senator Kerry's style leaves a substantial bitter after taste beginning, say, a week after his presentation, then the bitter after taste should be all the more intense following the second debate, since Mr. Bush did not repeat the mistakes he made in the first one. But one would not expect to see the negative polling consequences for the Democratic ticket to show up for more several days. That trajectory is, so far, all consistent with Rasmussen's observation there was not a noticeable jump in the post-debate interviews.

The consistency of my theory with the second half of Rasmussen's observation, that it will take a few more days to fully measure the impact of the debate is a little more complicated. Yes, the debate's effects will be fully incorporated into the tracking poll and voters' minds in a few days. But, if I am right, the tendency of voters to recoil from whatever favorable effects Senator Kerry had on those voters in the second debate, will lag by several more days.

That seems to be what happened after the first debate.

UPDATE: Bill Safire's take on the second debate gets almost everything right, beginning with:

When pro-Kerry commentators solemnly pronounce Debate Round 2 to have been "a draw" - you know George Bush won that round.

The big sea-change in American political coverage is that now when someone like Mr. safire alludes to pro-Kerry commentators much of the public immediately know he is referring to essentially everyone at the news divisions at the three "old" networks, CNN and the usual print media suspects. Yes, those media outlets and their agents deny, deny, deny. But, what is true for Senator Kerry is also true for them: "It's clear for everybody to see. And as I said, you can run, but you can't hide."

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