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The Debates: Somebody’s Wrong

Here’s an interesting piece of reporting from the Wall Street Journal:

The first debate, on Friday, will be at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where in 1962 the enrollment of James Meredith, its first African-American student, touched off a deadly riot. The debate commission had directed that this debate would cover domestic issues, but the two campaigns agreed to change it to foreign policy. Sen. McCain’s advisers wanted to lead off with his strong suit, foreign policy. Sen. Obama’s advisers wanted to have the last debate center on domestic issues, particularly the economy, which they believe will benefit their candidate. Also, some Obama advisers said they didn’t want the issue of race “front and center” during a debate.

Easiest. Negotiation. Ever. Both campaigns thought that having the foreign policy debate first and the domestic policy debate last would help their cause. This was the reverse of how the Commission on Presidential Debates had set things up originally.

But of course, both campaigns can’t be right. So who is? Let’s poll this one, and then I’ll have a few quick thoughts below the fold.

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There is little doubt that a discussion on foreign policy is playing to McCain’s strengths. Even when Obama may be winning a foreign policy argument on points, it probably benefits McCain for foreign policy to be the subject of discussion, period, as it brings his experience, war heroism and purported readiness to the fore.

However, that’s not really the question. We’re going to have a foreign policy debate, and we’re going to have a domestic policy debate. The question is whether McCain benefits by having the foreign policy debate first.

The first debate usually gets better ratings than the last debate. In the eight campaigns since 1960 in which there were multiple Presidential debates, the first debate had 60.7 million viewers on average, and the last had 56.3. This year, however, the first debate is on a Friday, which is moderately unusual. There were also Friday debates in 2004 and 1976, and two out of the four debates in 1960 were on a Friday. In each case, these were the lowest-rated debates of the cycle. So I’d expect this to be a wash.

Then there’s the question of momentum versus expectations-setting. Clearly, it would benefit McCain to have a jolt of momentum right now — he’s had a rough week. And foreign policy presents him with the better opportunity to do that. On the other hand, let’s recall 2004, when George W. Bush was completely awful in the first debate (which did produce some momentum for John Kerry) but then only somewhat awful in the second and third debates — which the press was happy to call comebacks and wins for him since the first debate had so lowered their expectations.

If Obama does badly in the foreign policy debate, he’ll get maybe 30 cents on the dollar back in terms of lowered expectations for the next two debates. On the other hand, if the foreign policy debate were the last debate, there would be no more debates left, and so Obama would have nowhere to cash in that change.

When push comes to shove, the equilibrium of this campaign favors Barack Obama by a couple of points. McCain’s goal is to knock the campaign off equilibrium for just long enough that one of these periods coincides with November 4. It would be easier for him to do that if the foreign policy debate, in which Obama is more likely to stumble, were held last. Conversely, a bad performance on Friday would leave Obama with two debates and 40 days to recover, and a media that will probably be happy to help him along. So, I’m giving Steve Schmidt an error on this one. Somewhat true to form, it’s a decision focused on winning McCain the battle rather than the war.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.