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Friday, October 3, 2008

First Presidential Debate, 2008

I find myself increasingly disheartened with the focus on pathos and consequential neglect of ethos and logos perpetuated by both presidential candidates. The rhetoric offered in their political advertising, rally speeches and even the debates appears to me to be little more than tainted attempts to suck in the 10-20% of the population that is ‘undecided.’ I well understand that 90% of Americans already have their mind firmly set on one candidate or the other; however, I would be remiss if I were to ignore the blatant and unabashed attempts by these candidates to manipulate the emotions of the undecided voters in an attempt to tip the vote in their favor.

Distasteful though I may find such attempts, it is the success of such endeavors that I will use as the standard for judging Friday’s debate. It seems to me that the ‘winner’ of the debate would be he who was able to ‘move’ the undecideds most, not by force of logic or ethic, but by emotional appeal quite independent of these. Each candidate generalized, and made sweeping attempts at painting his opponent in a negative light. However, in the category of issue simplification to appeal to the masses, Obama ‘won.’

How can I determine this? In political debates, especially in a format such as this, there are four major categories in which a candidate must succeed to 'win':

1) To what degree has the candidate simplified the issues? Was his explanation of the issues simple enough to understand, too simple and generalized, or over-complicated and above the heads of the average constituency?
2) What themes were used? Were the talking points well-received?
3) What did the nonverbal ques communicate about the candidate (body language, tone of voice, appearance, etc.)?
4) How much accurate and relevant information/ statistics/ history/ etc. did the candidate use to support his claims?

Obama's themes were clear, easy to understand, and obviously aimed at affecting the pathos of the undecided voter. He’s going to “end the war in Iraq, lower taxes for 95% of the population, change Washington culture” and, essentially, not be Bush. The undecided voter ‘feels’ like these are all good things, and so Obama took the first category.

Each candidate wore his campaign themes on his lapel... next to his flag pin. Senator John McCain barked about bipartisanship, accountability, government spending, country first and Obama’s lack of understanding. Senator Obama waxed about deregulation, Main Street and the ‘failed policies of the Bush administration supported by McCain.’ As valid as McCain’s points were during the debate (when he wasn’t just making appeals to pathos), and as refreshing as it was to hear him cite specific numbers, names and places, this debate does not get scored like a collegiate mock trial. The person with the most valid points of contention does not necessarily win. It’s very hard to motivate a country in recession with talks of earmarks. People don’t want to hear that; it isn’t sexy. Therefore, as valid and defensible as McCain’s themes were and are, they fell on deaf American ears. People want to hear about what he can do for them personally.

So, while McCain was displaying the worth of his decades of experience and thorough knowledge of foreign policy in an attempt to ‘show not tell’ why he is qualified to be president, Obama skipped all that and just told. As with the pageant queen who says she wants ‘world peace,’ fans swoon for the easy to grasp feel-good statements with which they can identify. Regardless of the fact that McCain’s arguments were better defended with statistics, facts, voting records and historical figures, Obama’s themes were a better appeal to the pathos of the masses. McCain might as well have pulled out a pie chart, a pointer stick, and an encyclopedia. Obama won this category as well.

As for nonverbal ques, anyone who knows anything about these two candidates would have predicted that Obama would look better in his presentation than the 72 year-old McCain. How does that old saying go? “You can put lipstick on a pig”… I digress. McCain failed to look into the camera or at Obama throughout 98% of the debate. Though McCain always looks at the ground in thought when replying, or at the person who has posed the question, this was seen by many viewers in a multitude of negative ways (he looks nervous/ unsure/ mad/ old/ angry/ confused/ etc.). By contrast, Obama made eye contact with the camera several times and he also managed to address McCain directly on a few occasions. Moreover, senator McCain has perhaps the most awkward forced smile known to man. When he busts it out, the audience literally feels his discomfort. When you put one product on stage next to another product, people usually buy the newer model. Obama won this category as well.

Both candidates did a good job of utilizing vocal variety. Though, it was Obama who raised his voice in indignation at the current administration’s handling of Iraq while McCain lowered his voice to a whisper to explain why Obama “just doesn’t seem to understand.” It’s obvious why they used the vocal variety that they did, of course. McCain was doing his best to repeal the perception of him as a seething, erratic old man, and Obama was doing his best to dispel the opinions of him as an inexperienced, unprepared, uncertain young man. Both were successful to some degree, so we’ll chalk this category up to a tie.

It’s quite telling that the worst anyone could say of McCain’s performance in the debate was that he didn’t look at Obama and that he never said the specific phrase ‘middle class’ (though he did say main street a few times). Yet, the prominent perception of the debate seems to be that Obama won. Why? The perception is what it is because that’s exactly what it is: perception.

When Nixon and Kennedy debated, those who listened to the debate on the radio were certain Nixon had nailed the victory. Conversely, those watching TV thought that Kennedy had won. The same debate, same words, same arguments were broadcast over both media. So what explains the variance? Perception. Kennedy’s nonverbal ques and physical attractiveness were enough to subvert the contents of the debate itself, and the same has happened in this first debate for Obama.

It’s all one big beauty pageant. The one who gets up there and says the things people like to hear the most and looks the best while saying it, wins. It doesn’t matter anymore how valid or sound his arguments are. Just as people watch the station that relays the news to them in such a way that their own personal beliefs are reaffirmed, people also vote for the candidate that tells them what they want to hear, even if what they want isn’t what they need.

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