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Presidential debate: what to look for beyond who wins or loses (+video)

Political spin coming out of the presidential debate Wednesday will be fierce. But the savvy viewer looks for more than winner and losers. Here's a guide to viewing the presidential debate.

By Staff writer / October 1, 2012

Mike Boswell (l.) and Mike Wymore carry a podium up stairs Monday in preparation for Wednesday night's presidential debate in Denver.

Morry Gash/AP

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Boulder, Colo.

In the minutes and days immediately following Wednesday's presidential debate in Denver – the first of four general-election debates on the calendar – expect the spin to come fast and furious.

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Staff writer

Amanda Paulson is a staff writer based in Boulder, Colo.

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Monitor correspondent Liz Marlantes has some thoughts on what President Obama should concentrate on as he prepares for the presidential debates.

The No. 1 question that will be asked – and answered, in differing ways: Who won?

According to some civic groups, though, that isn't the most interesting or even the most important aspect to come out of the debates.

In a wide-reaching discussion Monday with journalists and academics – including veteran broadcast journalist Sander Vanocur, who served as a panelist in the first Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 – the Newseum's First Amendment Center and the National Communication Association explored what else citizens watching the debates should look for to get the most insight into the candidates.

Some of their tips:

  • Watch with people who have different politics from you, so you can get their take on how each candidate is doing, rather than just seeing the debate through the lens of your own biases.
  • Do a little homework on the issues before watching so you don't have to take what the candidates say as truth (and be prepared to fact check afterward at one or more of the reputable fact-checking sites out there).
  • Try to weigh which candidate has a greater grasp of the facts and information, and how honest they are.
  • Watch the candidates' nonverbal cues as well as their verbal ones. (Remember Al Gore's famous sighs from his first debate against George W. Bush? Or how often the first President Bush checked his watch in his debate against Bill Clinton?) How well do the nonverbal signs match what they're saying? Is there a lot of sneering going on as the other person speaks?
  • Watch how well the candidates walk the line of being polite, without backing down. This is the first time sharing the stage amid a particularly acrimonious campaign, with negative ads on both sides, but most voters don't want to see signs of personal antipathy in the debate.

Things have changed a lot since the first modern presidential debate was held between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 (and not again until 1976). Back then, Mr. Vanocur remembered, he got just two days notice that there would be a debate and he'd be asking some questions.

Much has been made since then of the role the debates had in that election – and particularly the lack of awareness on the part of Mr. Nixon and his team as to how appearance and visuals would factor into the public's perception – though recent studies have shown that, at the time, the appearance story didn't dominate coverage of the debate, notes Kathryn Olson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Instead, the suggestion that what really mattered in the debate was Nixon's clothes and his lack of makeup has been amplified and simplified over the years.

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