Debate Results: McCain Down, White Women Up

Why Obama's cool debate strategy played to his toughest group of hold-outs.

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Sept. 29, 2008--The Sarah Palin Effect is over. Palin and McCain joined forces last week to make sure that no one took them very seriously, and they did every thing they could to help Obama open up a small but increasingly solid lead on McCain. With the Palin bump neutralized, Obama's still nagging concern are those Hillary voters who seemed determined to only look back in anger.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, John McCain's advantage over Barack Obama among white women is down to a measly two percentage points, 47 percent to 45 percent. That's down from an 11 point lead with the group in the days after the Republican Convention, at the height of the Palin frenzy. Everything seems to have changed in the last week. Maybe it was McCain suspension dynamics, or maybe it was Palin's conversation with Katie Couric. But white women, who campaign commercials and pundits insisted were shifting to McCain in droves, have evidently stopped shifting.

That is, except for white, college-educated women between 30 and 49.

The one area where Obama still seems to be struggling is not with the now-famous working-class, blue-collar female voter or women over 50 who provided Clinton with her most stalwart support. No, for now, the most skeptical hold-outs seem to be college graduates between 30 and 49. Go figure.

Obama has a huge lead among white women under 30 who have been to college, leading by 19 points in the most recent Gallup Poll. Among non-college white women, McCain has a five- point lead. Among women over 50, the candidates are playing to their strengths, with those who have been to college favoring Obama by an average of 13 percentage points, while those who have not been to college are going to McCain by the same margin.

It is the white college-educated women between 30 and 49 that jumble the picture; they favor Obama by a mere six points between 30 and 39, and three points between 40 and 49. Consider this the grudge match; some of these women were not just for Hillary, they were against Obama. They didn't trust him, thought he was too smooth, too lucky, that he was undeserving of the attention and the acclaim. They think they know this guy. They have worked with him, maybe dated him. They commute to work still stewing about him, and they are not yet ready to let it go.

Which brings me to the Friday debate, and why Obama's excessively agreeable approach was the only way to go: The only people left to convince are those looking at stylistic questions. For the most part they are women, white women. Despite McCain's refusal to even look at him, Obama's decision to treat the debate like a conversation , conceding small points in order to make larger ones, probably played well with these undecideds. Hence, his surge to an eight-point lead with white women in the Gallup Daily Tracking Poll. I'm guessing that it continues to rise over the next couple of days.

Apparently, the closer you were to the presidential debate of Friday, the harder it was to see what happened. According to hyper-prolific Ben Smith at Politico, the consensus in the press filing room in Oxford, Miss. was that McCain had won. He admits that it was a 'mild' consensus meaning that it came with a 'feel free to disregard' warning, and he offered this tidbit only to say that the quickie polls disagreed.

A CBS news poll showed that viewers thought Obama won 39 percent to 25 percent, while another, conducted by CNN, showed a 51 percent to 38 percent margin for Obama. That poll is being discounted in some circles because the sample was more Democratic than the population at large, but that has been the trend. Democrats enjoy a remarkable registration advantage over the GOP. Given John McCain's performance in the last few days – suspending his campaign, showing up on Capitol Hill just in time to blow up the Wall Street bailout deal, working from home over the weekend—the margin may only grow larger.

Hardcore Obama supporters may have wanted their candidate to jab harder on Friday. But Obama knew what crowd he needed to play to. The few undecided voters left are not cheered when they see the candidates fight; they are the ones decrying negative ads, and so all that congeniality probably worked for Obama. McCain, at one point on Friday, accused Obama of not knowing the difference between tactics and strategy; the immediate verdicts on the debate tell a different story, and we'll know more when we see where white women come down in the end.

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