Last words from me about debates until 2012 (at the soonest)

Here's why the third debate, and all three debates, helped Obama so much more than McCain.

In general-election debates, it's a losing strategy to "rally the base." That's what your own campaign events, and your fund-raisers, and your targeted ads, and your running mate are for. Especially by the time of the second and third debates, the job is to "rally the center." That's where most of remaining persuadable and undecided voters are.

Everything about Barack Obama's approach to this debate, and all debates, was consistent with this reality. Almost nothing about John McCain's approach was:

- Obama took every opportunity to steer questions back from campaign tactics to governing issues. ("It's been a tough campaign, and we have hurt feelings, but what really matters is avoiding four more years of...."  All quotes here are from memory and therefore approximate, but true to the general spirit.)

- He took every opportunity to talk about "working together" to deal with those issues, ("The reality is, it's going to take Republicans and Democrats working together.")

- He took nearly every opportunity to suggest encompassing rather than polarizing approaches to the substance of those issues. ("Do we want to reduce the cost of health care or expand the coverage? We've got to do both...")

- He took every opportunity to identify areas where he and John McCain actually agreed on approaches. ("I agree with John..." might have seemed an over-used trope in the first debate. This time, very selectively, it helped in the control-the-center strategy.)

- He took most opportunities to remain calm, to stay above the fray, to seem amused rather than frazzled, not to take personal offense. As mentioned earlier, he was not quite as perfectly self-contained as in earlier performances. But compared with McCain, he was the one -- in a good sense -- who had taken Prozac, while McCain seemed to be in a 'roid rage. And because of this general self-possession -- realizing, for instance, that there was only upside in being gracious about Sarah Palin -- when he decided to bear down, as in the breathtaking "At your running mate's rallies, when someone mentions my name they say 'Terrorist' and 'Kill him,'" it was the more powerful.

If you go down the same list, you can see that McCain did just about the opposite on every one of the counts. His most effective rhetorical line was that if Obama wanted to run against President Bush, he could have done so four years ago. (For that matter, so could McCain.) But that was undercut, according to the logic above, by emphasizing tactics over issues, by emphasizing partisan division over conciliation, by body-language contempt for his opponent, and by a demeanor that reinforced the short-tempered and dyspeptic impression from the previous debates.

Whatever the instant polls said, however you lined up the debating flow, the person who was already ahead had a plan that could gain him more support, and the one who was behind played to the base.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In