I am biased, so I didn't believe that what I saw was the same as what undecided American voters saw.
For example, I thought McCain was confused and incoherent in the early section (rambling on about cutting spending and confusing fiscal crises with financial crises), and didn't know what he was talking about for the most part. But for lower information voters who don't understand any more about these issues than McCain does, I thought it might have played. McCain always gets excited about earmarks and corruption in Congress, and this came through very strongly last night. Even though Obama pointed out that earmark spending is small potatoes compared to the massive spending increases that McCain proposes with tax cuts and an indefinite presence in Iraq, I thought that McCain might actually gain some traction on this issue.
Likewise, when I heard him talking tough about Russia and Georgia, and fearmongering about Iran, and playing up the success of the Surge, I thought it was putting Obama on the defensive. Most people just assume that McCain is experienced and knowledgable about this stuff, so I thought they'd take him seriously when he rambles on about a League of Democracies and warns that crazy Ahmadinejad wants to blow up Israel.
But it turns out that little of my fears were justified. The early polling results suggest that while Democrats liked Obama and Republicans liked McCain, the all important Independents and "uncommitted" broke quite decisively for Obama. Though McCain still squeaked by as having an edge on foreign policy, Nate Silver points out that the voters just don't care all that much about foreign policy, especially not during economic crises.
There also appears to be a narrative forming about McCain's attitude towards Obama, and it isn't good news for our lovable maverick. Contempt for your opponent is not behavior befitting a presidential candidate, and McCain had it in droves last night.
The classic case is Gore vs. Bush in 2000. On substance, Gore pummeled Bush during their first debate. But Gore was constantly sighing, rolling his eyes, and generally appearing exasperated, as if to say "I can't believe I'm running against this idiot". It didn't matter that Gore was right on the issues; his contempt for Bush became the dominant narrative in the media in the days following the debate, and many think it irrevocably changed the tone of the campaign. Gore clumsily tried to compensate later on, as John Cole remembers:
Look for the appearance of the following words in days to come: cranky, grumpy, crotchety, angry, mean, rude, sneering, snarling, contemptuous, off-putting, snide, boorish, and worst of all, not Presidential. SNL will probably drive the point home in a skit that will become the dominant narrative tonight, and McCain will become boxed in regarding his behavior in the second debate, much as Gore was unable to be as aggressive as he wanted in the second debate (I remember the running joke was that Gore had been medicated for the second debate). And if McCain does not tone down the contempt, it will simply feed the narrative. Or, if we are really lucky, as someone suggested in another thread, McCain will overcompensate and spend the entire time comically and creepily attempting to make eye contact with Obama (think Al Gore walking across the stage to stand next to Bush, and Bush looking at him as if to think “WTF are you doing?”).
McCain's undisguised contempt for Obama has the potential to become a big story. The media loves drama, they love a soap opera. Wrangling over the merits of the candidates' tax plans bores them, but McCain avoiding eye contact with Obama for 90 minutes is like a five course meal for the media stars.
This should be terrifying for the McCain campaign for two reasons. First, the base will not understand it. To them, a sneering,contemptuous jerk is a feature, not a bug. When they try to tone down McCain, it will turn off the diehards. Look at the reaction of the base to Palin’s RNC speech- they LOVED that she was, for all intents and purposes, nothing but an asshole the entire speech. They loved the “zingers” that were written for her. The rest of the country recoiled in horror, and Obama raised ten million the next 48 hours.That's an excellent point about Palin. I know conservatives who thought her convention speech was one of the best things since sliced bread. But for practically everyone else, it was an arrogant and presumptuous piece of vitriol that makes her subsequent fall from grace all the more satisfying.
Second, they have spent the last few months angrily lashing out at the media, and these were the folks who used to love McCain. The campaign no longer allows McCain to talk to the media, and the Straight Talk Express is the “No Talk” Express these days. So for the bobbleheads that will be pushing the new narrative of the mean old McCain, the contrast is real. It wasn’t just the snarling you and I saw on tv. It was the contrast from the nice,friendly, have some BBQ here are your donuts McCain to the new one. They used to know him as their friend, now he is a jerk- the change to them is more dramatic than it is to us, and as such, the mean McCain narrative will be easier for them to adopt and pass along.
This thing is going to spread and will be really bad for Johnny Drama, and I am loving it.