Case experts share what to look for in political debates: Style versus substance
From Nixon’s five o’clock shadow to Reagan’s pithy comebacks, history shows viewers of the upcoming political debates will consider more than just the issues
With 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
How the Vice Presidential Candidates Stack Up
Lessons from the Past
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.
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