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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Thoughts on the Second Debate

In Is Anyone Responsible?, Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar tackles the implications of media "framing:"

At the most general level, the concept of framing refers to subtle alterations in the statement or presentation of judgment and choice problems, and the term "framing effects" refers to changes in decision outcomes resulting from these alterations.

Most television news is framed in an "episodic" manner:

The episodic news frame takes the form of a case study or event-oriented report and depicts public issues in terms of concrete instances...For example, television news coverage of mass-protest movements generally focuses more closely on specific acts of protest than on the issues that gave rise to the protests...The identical pattern is observed in television news coverage of labor-management disputes, where scenes of picketing workers received more airtime than discussions of the economic and political grievances at stake.

Episodic framing is how the mainstream media tends to frame presidential campaigns. Here is the opening paragraph of MSNBC's First Read:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Part three of the four-part debate series is now over, and the one big conclusion is that nothing changed. And nothing changing isn't a good result for McCain. In need of a trajectory-changer (we're trying not to use the word "game"), McCain didn't get it. This now puts pressure on him to make the most of the final debate next week. However, McCain might have lost before the debate ever started -- at 4:00 pm ET Tuesday, when the final curtain fell on another horrible day on Wall Street. And now the Fed has just cut a key interest rate by half a point to 1.5%.

This is an episodic frame. McCain did not get a debate moment yesterday, so now he has to wait until his next opportunity to get one.

I think that this is the wrong way to understand the American electoral process. Think about what this assumes of the average voter. Suppose there was such a "moment" last night - like Barack Obama peeked at his watch, causing the talking heads to chatter about how out-of-touch he is with the concerns of regular people.

At this point, there are tens of millions of people who are, to some degree, undecided. They are right now making up their minds. Do we really believe that they would be so shallow as to make a decision on something as trivial as that? I don't. I know an undecided voter or two. They aren't shallow. They understand they have a responsibility to make a good decision - not based on the "gotcha" moments or other trivialities that capture the imagination of media types.

If we leave the episodic frame behind, how should we look at last night's debate? As a contest that one candidate wins and the other loses? I don't think so. I look at these debates as an opportunity for both candidates to provide persuadable voters with information that they might not yet have heard. So, of course this debate bored the pundits and junkies to tears: they've heard all this stuff already. But people in the middle might not have. The good folks over at Politico might consider it the worst debate ever, but people in the middle might have thought things like, "McCain has an interesting idea on subprime mortgages," or "I didn't know Obama's mom died from cancer. Health care reform must be very important to him."

And it's not that those folks made up their minds in that instant. [In all likelihood, plenty of people had positive thoughts about both candidates through the course of the contest.] Rather, those thoughts are data points that, along with other data points collected over the course of the month, help them make a decision at some point prior to Election Day. So, the debate is not best understood as a moment, but part of a process.

This is why my analysis of the first debate focused on who controlled the agenda. For what it was worth, I thought McCain did, and I received emails from Obama supporters who - after quoting this, that, and the other poll - told me I was nuts. Clearly, they said, Obama "won" and McCain "lost." But I dispute the electoral relevance of those terms. I think people's vote choices hinge on more substantive concerns, and they are formed not in a single moment but over time. So, I don't think it much matters who wins and who loses. I do think it mattered that the first debate focused on subjects where McCain has the "better" argument, like spending.

Last night's debate was different. McCain did not control its agenda. That was good for Obama, who was able to talk more about subjects where he has the "better" argument, like health care. The first debate passed without a single discussion about health care, but many about spending. Last night, there was more balance. The Obama campaign should be pleased about that.

What does this mean for last night? It doesn't mean McCain lost an opportunity to "change the trajectory of the race" or whatever episodic frame you heard your local journalist pushing. Here's the reality: barring some unprecedented meltdown from Barack Obama, John McCain was never going to have such a moment. That's not how the American public makes up its mind. Last night was not an episode, like some boxing match to be scored. It was one part of a bigger process, one that happens in October every four years as the broad middle of this country makes up its mind.

-Jay Cost