Uncle observes that both Paul Krugman and SK Bubba have predicted that the MSM will declare President Bush to be the winner of tomorrow’s “debate.” Both base their predictions not on the respective debating skills of the two candidates, but on the silly theory that if the MSM is less liberal than they are, it must be conservative. Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way. The media tilts overwhelmingly toward Kerry, so if it’s close, they’ll call it for him. If Bush wins hands-down, they’ll spin it as a draw. If the New York Times comes out and says Bush won the “debate,” then Kerry’s in more trouble than anyone would have thought.
My prediction is that by all objective measures, there won’t be a clear winner of tomorrow’s pseudo-debate. If it were a genuine debate, with canmdidates asking each other questions and scowling on camera while each other speak, then there might be some real potential for either candidate to “get” the other. There’s not, so what we’ll probably end up with is more like both candidates holding a press conference at the same time, pitching the newest versions of their best sound bites from their respective conventions, while we, the viewers, constantly flip the channels back and forth between them. If you think Kerry “won” the convention battle, he’ll “win” the debate, too, for the same reason. If Bush did, he will.
If I am right, then the principal effect of tomorrow’s “debate” will be to confirm the views voters hold already, in which case Bush will have “won” by default. For one thing, Bush clearly did win the convention war, receiving a much larger post-convention bounce than Kerry did, if indeed Kerry received one at all, so more of the same may lead to a real increase in the polling gap between the candidates. For another, even if the numbers stand still, they probably will become less volatile, with both sides becoming further convinced of whatever it is they’re convinced about now.
To be sure, Kerry does have a long history of coming back at the last minute to win races he was supposed to lose badly. This does tend to get overstated, however. Beating William Weld by a whopping 7-point margin in 1996 sounds nifty enough, but scarcely so when you consider that incumbents are usually re-elected by margins like that, especially if everyone thinks they are Irish. In any event, Kerry’s comeback coincided with a Clinton landslide in the same state. With Clinton carrying the state by almost five times Kerry’s margin, I have to wonder if, even in Massachusetts, “Comeback Kerry” was really “Coattail Kerry.” If so, he’d better get his act together, and fast. Coattail Kerry pulled off the primary by running as the anti-Dean, only to ride Dean’s coattails later. But even that only goes so far. By election day, everyone will know they are not on Howard Dean for President. Who else’s coattails can he ride? Chirac’s? Annan’s? Please. The buck stops at the White House, and so do the coattails. If Coattail Kerry is going to win this one, he’s going to need to find a way to win this on his own steam, and fast. This time, he has to be the one providing the coattails; he can’t ride on anyone else’s.
In the past, I’ve chided other bloggers for predicting the outcome of the election far too early in the game. Even now, a mere 34 days before Colorado votes to disenfranchise itself and every other state elects a challenge-proof slate of electors for Bush or Kerry, a lot could happen. Maybe Kerry will tank tomorrow’s “debate” and come back swinging in the next two. Maybe, but probably not. So I’m going to stick my neck out just a little bit and make a prediction that can go one of two ways: either Kerry takes it away tomorrow, or he’s toast. The only caveat is that we won’t necessarily know the winner immediately after the “debate.” I recently spoke to a well-known pollster, and he said it always takes a few days for perceptions about the “winner” or “loser” of any debate to sink into the public psyche. So I’m giving this French-looking, French-acting, formerly fake Irish American until next Monday to convince the public that we had a debate on Thursday, September 30, 2004, and that he won it. Stay tuned.