Presidential debate: what to look for beyond who wins or loses

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.

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

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.

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.

But debates can matter a lot. And, in many ways, seem to be riskier for incumbents, even though conventional wisdom says that an incumbent has an advantage, bringing the weight of the presidency with him to the stage.

Since 1976 – when debates started to be held every presidential election cycle – three incumbents have been defeated, notes Ms. Olson: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush. In contrast, just two incumbents – William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover – lost their reelection bids in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

And certain moments have emerged as game-changers.

There's Michael Dukakis's all-policy response when asked whether he'd seek the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife – cementing his "wooden" image. The question, agreed most of the Newseum panelists, was an unfair one – either Mr. Dukakis had to flip-flop on his death-penalty stance or be portrayed as passionless – but he could have criticized the question or showed his passion and anger before explaining why he still opposed the death penalty.

And then there's that indelible moment from the Carter-Reagan debate when Ronald Reagan, who smiled through Jimmy Carter's attack on his Medicare record, responded by saying, "There you go again" – creating what became a defining phrase of the 1980 election.

Afterward, said Vanocur, most voters probably forgot the context of Mr. Reagan's comment. "You only knew it was devastating," Vanocur said.

Reagan's smile also had the effect of casting doubt on Mr. Carter's words even before Reagan responded, said Charlton McIlwain, a New York University professor. On Wednesday, Professor McIlwain says, he'll be watching to see how each candidate comes across as they ake their own attacks and react to each other under pressure.

Will they keep up the angry attacks they've made in ads? And how will they respond (silently, even before they are allowed to answer) to attacks their opponent makes?

With a president of color facing off against a white challenger, there are other minefields both will need to avoid, said McIlwain. Romney needs to avoid appearing arrogant – and refrain from the sort of belittling comment John McCain made in 2008 when he pointed at Obama and called him "that one," which many people interpreted through a racial lens.

And Obama needs to avoid making any sort of reference to race an an excuse for anything – which probably means not broaching the subject at all, says McIlwain.

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