McCain-Obama debate: a game-changing face-off?
Some presidential debates tip elections. This could be one of them.
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It’s not just what a candidate says that matters, as Vice President Al Gore discovered in his 2000 debate against George W. Bush. It’s their attitude. In the first debate with then Governor Bush in Boston, almost every debate expert gave the round to Mr. Gore for the quality of his rhetoric and his intellectual ability as a debater. But the media, and eventually the public, decided that Bush got the round – in part because of Gore’s exasperated sighs, his rolling of the eyes, and shaking of his head in dismay. It made him appear arrogant.Skip to next paragraph
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Add to that the importance of coping with the inevitable “Where’s the beef?” or “You’re no Jack Kennedy” one-liner that aides in both camps have probably already cooked up.
“Both candidates need to be wary of their nonverbal temperament and levels of discomfort,” says Timothy O’Donnell a professor at the University of Mary Washington and chairman of the collegiate National Debate Tournament. “It’s important the way they react to the one-liner: whether they can exhibit authenticity and wit and not appear stiff or knocked-back on their heels.”
That’s also part of the expectations game. Both parties have spent the last few months trying to weave a positive narrative about their candidate. Republicans paint McCain as the maverick whose strength is foreign policy. The Democrats tout Obama as a change agent, whose strength is problem-solving. Each side has also been busy creating negative narratives about their opponents. Democrats have painted McCain as out of touch and old. Republicans portray Obama as an arrogant elitist. The gaffes during debates that end up with real political significance are the ones that feed into those narratives – positive and negative.
“Obama can’t be disengaged, anything that shows even a hint of elitism; and it may sound too simple, but McCain can’t have a ‘senior moment,' ” says debate expert Allan Louden, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University.
McCain is also known as a better, more down-to-earth debater who’s capable of skewering an opponent with a smile. Obama is seen as more awkward behind the podium – too wordy and sometimes intellectual – but someone’s who’s improved throughout the primary season.
“Obama has to get through this debate coming off as just as qualified and just as able to handle foreign policy concerns as his opponent – since foreign policy is supposed to be McCain’s strength. Then we might be giving the debate round to Obama,” says McKinney. “McCain has been telling people he's going to wipe the floor with Obama – the expectations game is such that McCain cannot make a mistake."
A simple gaffe, even a misstatement, can cost someone a debate – if not an election – as Gerald Ford found out in 1976 in his debate with Jimmy Carter. At one point, he said that “Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination.” He meant the people of Eastern Europe were still independent, despite their governments. During the debate, most viewers seemed to understand that.
“Immediately after that debate polls showed that by a 44 to 35 percent margin more viewers thought Ford outperformed Carter. And by a 54 to 36 percent margin most viewers preferred Ford,” says Professor Olson.
But after the media hammered away at the mistake, which played into the narrative that Democrats had been weaving that Ford was out of touch, the polls shifted dramatically. “By a 61 percent to 19 percent margin, they believed Carter had won the debate and by a 54 to 37 they expressed a preference for him,” says Olson.
With the advent of the Internet and the ever growing blogosphere, the ability of the formal, mainstream media to influence perceptions may be dulled some, according to Olson. But other experts say the Internet also may increase the “perception factor” exponentially.
“There’s going to be hundreds of people out there trying to find the gaffe that will fly,” says Professor Louden. “There are multiple potential gaffes in any debate, it just depends on what story takes wing.”