Barack Obama once again won tonight’s debate, and undecided voters are prepared to move toward his candidacy, according to Democracy Corps research conducted around tonight’s second presidential debate. Unlike the first debate, when Democracy Corps research showed half the voters remaining undecided and the two candidates splitting the other half, the vote following the second debate showed a decisive shift toward Senator Obama. This debate was a clear victory for Obama who made major gains not just in the vote but also on personal favorability and key attributes like ‘has what it takes to be President,’ which ultimately drove undecided voters into his column.
McCain’s ongoing strategy to portray Obama as too liberal and someone who will raise Americans’ taxed did not succeed. After the debate, Obama maintained a 16-point advantage on taxes and, more importantly, the proportion of voters seeing him as too liberal went down and the number of voters who saw him as independent rose 26 points.
McCain’s negativity led voters to tune out as the debate progressed, which was reflected in dial scores which remained mostly flat. Moreover, McCain made little or no improvement on key attributes such as being tied to special interests and offering a different path from Bush. However, just as after the first presidential debate, McCain did improve his standing as a maverick politician.
The McCain shifters were not enthusiastic about McCain and even complained about the choice of Sarah Palin, who they believe may truly need to fill McCain’s shoes. But they ultimately supported McCain because the debate failed to dispel the strong doubts about Obama that they brought with them prior to tonight. These doubts primarily centered on the questions that have been raised about Obama’s “associations” with dubious characters and whether he has the experience required to achieve all the things that he promises. They did not express a sense that things in the country would improve substantially under a McCain administration, but they were holding back from the unknown Obama.
These results favor the notion that the debates have served more as a referendum on Obama (as will the larger election) than a great contest of ideas between the candidates (though of course it is that too; issues actually matter to most voters, to one extent or another.) And it's clear that the more people see of Obama, the more they like him. Unfortunately for McCain, there's very little he can do about that. Old tropes about tax-and-spend liberals aren't working in the current climate. Attacking Obama as a great unknown appears to work on only those who don't like what they see of Obama in the debates, and raising Obama's associations only appears to work on a subset of voters who give those issues any credence. The fact is Obama comes off as calm, cool, reasoned and likeable, and recent developments favor his approach. There just isn't much that McCain can do to counter that.