Thursday, October 14, 2004

Who Will Win the Debate? When Will We Know? 

Alex at Detached Observer observes:
[I]t seems fairly obvious that conservative bloggers as a group have become little more than spinsters for the Bush/Cheney campaign.

Right after writing the post, I did in fact go to instapundit and saw a deluge of links to bloggers all arguing that Bush had won.

Now when we all debate who won, we are arguing about a falsifiable claim. We are not discussing who had better arguments. We are discussing whose performance will help his campaign more. And we can observe the boost/drop in the polls to see who was right.

Now if you make 3 predictions in a row (Bush won, Cheney won, Bush won) and each one gets falsified by subsequent polls, don't you think it makes sense for you to reconsider the way you made those predictions?

Apparently not. The unanimous opinion among the conservative bloggers is that this was a solid win for Bush. Which explains why I find reading them no more appealing than reading the Bush Cheney official blog.
He's got a point here, no?

There's a little more to the story, though, in my opinion. Alex is, of course, basically correct in his debate-judging criterion. We ought to make a few refinements, though: The candidate who "won" the debate is ultimately he who increased his share of the vote on November 2 by the greatest amount. While it's impossible at this point (and perhaps ever) to crunch the relevant numbers to come up with good estimates of whose vote share changed and how, we do have these snap polls, particularly of undecided voters, to help us guess at who ultimately won each debate. Alex is correct: all have shown Kerry/Edwards victories (hurrah!). In fact, as you can see here and here, the electorate's initial response to last night's debate seems to have been strongly pro-Kerry.

But the lockstep Bush-praising that Instapundit and his ilk are engaged in is less an attempt at impartial judging and more an attempt at revising the conventional wisdom on the debaters' performance. It's the same motivation underlying Kos and Atrios's urging their readers to vote in huge numbers in those silly online polls just after the debates. Get a loud enough chorus of partisans saying their man won, and waverers on the sidelines can be convinced in the face of all other evidence, including their own initial opinions. It sounds stupid, but it seems to work.

I wish I understood the phenomenon better, and I'm no political psychologist, but it does happen: I've seen countless references to the fact that Al Gore was initially thought to have won his debates with GWB four years ago, yet is now remembered as having lost the election on those nights. Instapundit (and Kos) may look ridiculous now, but if their clownish antics result in helping their candidate win the election, they won't seem such asses on November 3.

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