The pundits were watching two bull elephants fight. The voters were interviewing a potential President. No wonder they didn’t see the same debate. Obama achieved his strategic goal: he made the country comfortable with the idea of Obama as President. Think 1980.

All the numbers are in, and it’s clear that Obama won this debate even more decisively than he did the first two: e.g., 2-to-1 among independents on mediacurves. Which leaves the puzzle of why the talking heads scored it for McCain until they saw the numbers. (I was watching CNN, but apparently the chatter was fairly consistent: see Mark Halperin.)

At least in the CNN discussion, the theme was that McCain was “on offense” and Obama “on defense.” That leads me to a guess about what was going on. The chatterers were judging a dominance contest among bull elephants, with points awarded for trumpeting, stomping, and slashing with tusks. The voters were selecting a President. Since the two groups were scoring different contests, it’s not surprising that the scores were different.

David Gergen made the most important point of the evening, one that related to all three debates and one that, I thought, Obama grasped and McCain didn’t. These were only formally and secondarily clashes between Obama and McCain. The voters weren’t really measuring them against each other. These debates were the final step in Barack Obama’s job interview for the Presidency.

The voters (like those in 1980, as Ed Rollins pointed out yesterday) had already decided they’d had about enough of the ruling party. But they needed to be reassured that the opposition candidate wasn’t a fool, a lightweight, or a kook. What mattered was whether the challenger could get above the bar, put himself in the voters’ comfort zone. Once that happened, there was sure to be a landslide.

Obama’s super-controlled performances were all aimed at that end. Unlike his opponent, he knows deep in his bones the difference between tactics and strategy.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com