10/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why So Many Pundits Wrongly Scored the Debate 'Even'

It often happens that the pundit "scoring" of a presidential debate ends up quite at odds from the polls of viewers that soon follow.

We've seen it again with last night's debate, which most pundits (on TV and in print) scored very or fairly even, with perhaps some recognition that Obama made some small gains because he pretty much held his own on McCain's turf. Of course, as we now know, virtually every poll taken by the networks and outside sources gave Obama an edge -- and not a small one. He easily swept surveys of undecideds, even carried a Fox focus group. At least in the polls, it was no contest.

We'll see if and how it affects the head-to-head matchup surveys in days ahead but for now we have to ask: Why did so many mainstream pundits blow it?

Of course, there is always the striving for "balance," the effects of pre-spinning, and in some cases their favoring of McCain from the outset. And, to be frank, McCain gave a pretty good account of himself. But many pundits threw out the window what they, and others, had said beforehand, about Obama needing to appear presidential and seem expert on international matters. When he did just that in the debate, they suddenly forgot the importance they had placed on it beforehand.

But here's the key to the viewer/pundit disparity. It took awhile for McCain to build up to it, but then he hammered it home near the end: Obama, he charged, lacked the "knowledge and experience" to be president.

Pundits highlighted that and said it was the key to McCain gaining at least a tie. But I didn't hear a single person on TV point out: McCain just picked Palin for vice president! How, then, could he make such a charge against Obama?

My feeling is that the Couric interview might have done for McCain what the first Nixon-Kennedy debate did for Nixon in 1960 -- a true watershed moment. The American voters finally "got it" about Palin and so McCain's "best moment" against Obama either fell flat with many of them, or proved laughable. This was made all the more stark with Palin AWOL during the post-debate analysis -- and Joe Biden all over the place.

But the pundits barely recognized this -- and that's why they scored the debate fairly even even as viewers seem to have rated it a landslide for Obama.

Subject for a later column: The many pundits who now have egg on their faces for their early hailing of Palin and/or predictions of how strongly she would help the ticket.

Read more reactions to the first presidential debate from HuffPost bloggers, including Nora Ephron, Bob Shrum, Madeleine Albright, Paul Reiser, Arianna Huffington, Sean Penn, Sheryl Crow, and more.

For more of my debate coverage:
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher and author of the new book on Iraq and the media, "So Wrong for So Long."