Thursday, November 10, 2022


Adam Jentleson, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has been tweeting promiscuously (or in woke, "tweeting as a sex worker") about the US Senate race in which John Fetterman beat Mehmet Oz.  He was primarily exorcised by the mainstream media which brought the message that the Fetterman's difficulties in the debate with his opponent debate seriously jeopardized the likelihood the Democrat would prevail. 

But Jentleson made a couple of good peripheral points in his tweet thread. He noted

The Fetterman camp said reactions to the debate were likely to be shaped by the central fact of the campaign: people like John and do not like Oz. They’d be sympathetic to John’s struggles because they are decent human beings and not schoolyard bullies or overconfident GOP flaks.

It's what in recent years has been characterized roughly as "have a beer with test," which is similar- not identical- to the traditional factor of charisma. When Fetterman ran, unsuccessfully, for the Democratic nomination for the same Senate seat (then and until January still held by Pat Toomey) six years ago, I believed that he'd be the strongest nominee because he was an individual voters would be drawn to.

If nothing else, he was and still is down-to-earth, plain-spoken, frequently sporting shorts and a hoodie because, presumably, he is comfortable doing so. Moreover, he seemed to be, well, not an intellectual's intellectual or stuffed shirt, a trait to which voters in Pennsylvania (especially Pennsylvania) would relate to. It's why, along with the Hobbes decision, I believed from the start that Fetterman would blow Oz away, probably by around 20 points.

That turned out to be wildly optimistic. However, Jentleson's expectation that voters would "be sympathetic to John's struggles because they are decent human beings...." likely would not have been borne out if Fetterman himself were more stodgy than relatable, more like the stereotype of a college professor than a guy who had just hopped off his Harley. (This is, after all, Pennsylvania, arguably part of the Rust Belt and cultural cousin to Ohio.)

That explanation, related to Jentleson's suspicion (and hope), is speculative and though probably valid, applies specifically to the candidate himself. This, however, does not:

The abundance of evidence says that debates almost never matter. Yet in the face of all evidence and in many cases without bothering to check, many reporters immediately bought into the idea that this debate was an exception - that it had not just mattered, but was decisive.

Debates are rarely ultimately determinative, and seldom make a marginal difference in an election outcome, especially if there is more than one debate.

Surely, that opinion- observation, really- would be held also by Presidents H. Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore. Clinton is generally believed to have "won" at least two of her three debates with Donald Trump and Al Gore clearly "won" the first and third of his three debates with George W. Bush. (At the second, Gore seemed to have overdosed on Valium.) Kerry dominated- simply dominated- Bush in their debates and appeared to be the embodiment of a candidate who would be "ready on day one" for the job.

Nonetheless, the best example would be Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale in 1984 because the first debate featured a 73-year-old candidate who appeared to be physically or mentally deficient, remarking in summation

I think that most of the people in this country would say, yes, they are better off than they were 4 years ago. The question, I think, should be enlarged. Is America better off than it was 4 years ago? And I believe the answer to that has to also be “yes.” 

There followed so much concern about the incumbent's fitness that the chairperson of the Republican National Committee was forced to deny his party's nominee harbored mental or physical deficiency. In the following faceoff, Reagan rambled in his closing statement about driving along a Pacific coast highway, nuclear weapons, and a time capsule. But it had no impact. He cleverly quipped, in a response to a question occasioned by his previous debate performance, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience. "

Game, set, match. Notwithstanding two closing statements that suggested the elderly Reagan was suffering from dementia, he had his sound bite- a devastating one- and he went on to crush the more capable Mondale.

Not surprisingly, the Oz campaign ran a debate snippet that displayed Fetterman fumbling while unable to give a to a question about fracking. Fetterman's advantage in polling went down- but his final margin of victory was extremely close (maybe even a little above) the margin which polls indicated the Democrat enjoyed before the debate.

Fortunately, the difference between the two candidates on abortion became ever clearer when in the debate Oz commented that "women, doctors, local political leaders" should be in on the decision. Evidently, it was a boon for Fetterman, as a CBS News exit poll found. 

Which ONE of these five issues mattered most in deciding how you voted today: (CHECK ONLY ONE)
Sample: 1,134FettermanOz
Crime (11%)51%49%
Abortion (37%)78%21%
Inflation (28%)27%72%
Gun policy (9%)--
Immigration (7%)--

Two years from now, during the next election cycle, news outlets will hype upcoming debates by trumpeting their importance to the outcome. Then, as almost always, they will be wrong. 


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