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Case experts share what to look for in political debates: Style versus substance

Image: Tips for sizing up candidates on the tubeWith the presidential and vice presidential debates around the corner, the contenders are diligently preparing to address an estimated 37 million viewers for each debate by perfecting their messages, working with public speaking coaches, consulting stylists and more. But, just how important are the televised debates in the grand scheme of the election? And, if one candidate is more attractive or wittier than his opponent, will the public favor him? History has shown that just one compelling sound bite or visual faux pas during a debate can influence viewers’ perceptions of who won, and in some cases influence viewers’ votes, confirming that both the candidates’ substance and style are equally important.

A Viewer’s Guide to Watching Debates
According to Norman Wain, mass communications professor with Case Western Reserve University — the location of the only vice presidential debate on Oct. 5 — the nation has never been so politically polarized, and it’s expected that all eyes will be glued to the television in the coming weeks. People who have not yet selected their preferred candidate are likely to base that crucial decision on the debates, according to Wain. He stresses that there is an art form to watching debates, and to really get a good feel for the candidates, there are some key considerations:

  • Look Beyond the Stray Eyebrows: “Television enables the public to get up close and personal with the candidates. It’s like real life, but exaggerated,” said Wain. “On TV, everything about the candidate is magnified, and you notice every nuance, including facial flaws, stray eyebrows and patterns on ties. Viewers are naturally drawn to and formulate opinions based on those details, but remember — the candidates are under a microscope, so don’t judge them too harshly based on these factors.”
  • Consider His Character: While Wain agrees that candidates’ appearance, oratorical style, tone, personality and body language are critical during televised debates, he says viewers also should consider what kind of person the candidate is, as the unpredictability of live television is a good indicator of personal character. “See if your candidate comes across as the kind of person you’d trust to lead the country. Ask yourself: Is he cool under pressure or overtly nervous? Is he diplomatic or defensive? If he makes a mistake during the debate, how does he handle it?”
  • Ponder the Whole Package: “Try to base your voting decision on the whole package — including the issues — versus just the way the candidate looks or speaks,” said Wain. “When deciding who you want to lead your country, there’s a lot to think about, so do some homework before the debate to get further perspective.”

How the Vice Presidential Candidates Stack Up
As with any performance, the participants will leverage their strengths. Wain says Senator Edwards should unleash his charm and charisma, but get serious and show his maturity during the debate, considering the age difference between him and Vice President Cheney. Cheney should smile more on camera, and try to be more affable to connect with viewers, while showcasing his well-earned tenure.

Lessons from the Past
While it remains to be seen how this year’s debates will turn out, the candidates can learn a thing or two from famous debaters of the past. As they say, history repeats itself.

If Looks Could Kill: The first televised presidential debate in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon proved appearance matters. Kennedy, in a black suit and make-up, was relaxed on television, while a flu-stricken, pale Nixon, sporting a five o’clock shadow, was noticeably sweating in a gray suit. Although Kennedy spoke rapidly and was somewhat difficult to understand because of his Boston accent and high-pitched voice, he presented himself as a knowledgeable and energetic young candidate who was in control. Nixon, known for his talents in public speaking and his resonant voice, failed to adapt to TV, and came across as somewhat artificial and unprepared. In the end, even though radio listeners favored Nixon, TV viewers outnumbered them and Kennedy came out on top.

Foot in Mouth Syndrome: In the 1976 debate between President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter, Ford commented that Poland was free from Soviet influence. This incorrect statement cost Ford votes in key swing states where many Polish-Americans lived. The moral of the story: Think before you speak.

Catch Phrases: The 1980 debates showed that President Ronald Reagan was affable, with a strong visual presence and the ability to quickly simplify and humanize the most abstract issues. No doubt, Reagan’s Hollywood career played a role in his ability to appear poised on camera. Incumbent democrat Jimmy Carter hoped to overshadow Reagan’s celebrity status with his intellect. Instead, Reagan took charge, getting his message across with catchy phrases, such as: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” and “There you go again” in response to Carter’s accusations. Reagan’s style paid off, earning him a second term as the president.

Speaking Without Saying a Word: During the 1992 debate, President George H. W. Bush was feeling the heat from Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and Texas businessman Ross Perot. Bush wasn’t fond of debating in the first place, and made this clear as he glanced at his watch, painstakingly counting the minutes left in the debate. To the President’s dismay, this moment was caught on-camera and reinforced Democratic vice presidential nominee Al Gore’s mantra: “It’s time for them to go.” Voters agreed with Gore, showing that body language sometimes says it all.


About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work.