After The Debate: The Race Begins

The Presidential debate season began last week with John Kerry winning the first round. With two more Presidential debates, one Vice-Presidential debate and four weeks of intense campaigning, this contest now moves toward the finish line.

Kerry had emerged from the Democratic convention with a slight lead over President Bush. With the United States at war, Democrats used their national convention to present their candidate as a strong leader able to win the controversial conflict in Iraq and keep the country secure from another terrorist attack.

During the next two months, Republicans methodically chipped away at that image, utilizing both their convention and a set of independent advertising campaigns to muddy up voter impressions of Kerry.

The Democratic candidate’s problem only grew after a number of national polls showed a post-Republican convention Bush holding a more than 10-point lead in the race for the White House. While the methodologies used by these polls have now been called into question (they polled, for example, many more Republicans than Democrats, thus skewing the results), the damage they did to Kerry’s candidacy was considerable. Analysts suggested that the race was just about over. Republicans were emboldened and Democrats disheartened.

The reality, however, was more complex. Bush was indeed ahead, but by only a 46-43% edge. His convention had succeeded in solidifying his Republican core support base, and Kerry had been somewhat hurt with Democrats now questioning whether or not their candidate had what it took to win. With the country deeply divided over the war and the campaign, the contest was still close. With the President holding a small lead and with about 10% of the electorate still undecided over whom to support, both Bush and Kerry approached the first debate aware of its importance to their candidacies.

To protect his lead, Bush had to emerge from the debate unscathed. Kerry, on the other hand, had to use this event to define himself, yet again, and reestablish his leadership credentials, which had been battered by months of a Republican assault.

To use a much-overworked boxing metaphor, the debate featured no knockdowns, but Kerry won on points. Despite the constraints imposed on the proceedings, the more than 50 million viewers who tuned in to the 90-minute debate were treated to a rather substantive discussion of two competing approaches to diplomacy, the war on terrorism and to winning the war in Iraq.

Kerry’s challenge was a difficult one. In the midst of a war, voters hesitate before changing leadership. Kerry not only had to convince voters that President Bush’s approach was wrong and that the Administration’s assessment of the progress being made was inflated, but that he, the Democratic challenger, had a better plan that could produce victory. Bush only had to hold his own ground, maintain that his approach was the right one and that his opponent lacked the consistency and ability to take the reins of leadership at this difficult time.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Bush accused Kerry 10 times of sending "mixed messages" and being inconsistent in his discussion of the Iraq war. He also derided Kerry on six occasions for calling Iraq "the wrong war." For his part, Kerry accused the President of "misleading" the nation about Iraq 11 times. He pledged his commitment to build a stronger "alliance" to win the war 12 times. And on 17 occasions Kerry spoke of having a better "plan" than the President.

While the differences between the two contenders for the White House were clearly established, what convinced the analysts of Kerry’s debate victory was style more than substance. Kerry was described as "confident," "demonstrating leadership," "cooler and more articulate." Most damaging to Bush was the assessment that Kerry was "more presidential." Bush, on the other hand, was alternately described as "defensive and rattled," "impatient and annoyed" "frustrated," and "perturbed."

Overnight polling showed that voters tended to agree. One poll showed Kerry the winner with a 9-point edge. Among undecided voters, Kerry won by a 43% to 28% margin. And maybe most significant for the Democratic candidate was the fact that polls showed voter confidence in his leadership in fighting terrorism and the war in Iraq went up by 9 points.

Now the real work begins. More important than the debate’s initial impact are the lasting impressions that will stick in voters’ minds. Toward that end both Republicans and Democrats have embarked on a massive national campaign to shape both the media and public’s view of the debate results. Recalling how Republicans ate away at their post-convention success, Democrats know how important this post-event effort can be. While the full effect of the debate has not yet registered, in all probability, next week’s polls should show Kerry having solidified and strengthened his Democratic support base and having won over some undecided voters. October will, therefore, begin with the race most likely tied.