Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Presidential Debate #2

Tonight marked the second presidential debate for the 2012 election season. Obama and Romney met at Hofstra University in a town hall meeting debate, in which citizens asked the candidates their own questions regarding foreign and domestic policy.

Compiled below are nonpartisan critiques from communication experts, ranging from professors, graduate students, speech and debate coaches, and students. 

AP 2012
Daniel Wheaton, member of Cornhusker Forensics:

The second act of political theatre had a very predictable plot— thanks to the political narrative.
These narratives provide heuristic shortcuts for readers of news. For example, Romney has been framed as an aristocrat while Obama has been framed as unable to complete some of his promises.

The debate furthered these narratives because each candidate used the context to attack one another.  

Obama ended on the 47 percent comment while Romney brought up events that angered the GOP.

The outcome of the debate was very predictable thanks to the narratives. All Obama had to do to “win” the debate in the public eye was use his perfomative skills to “zing” Romney.

AP 2012

Professor Damien Pfister, Communication Studies, Rhetoric and Public Culture:
The second Presidential debate was modeled after a Town Hall format. Usually, such formats invite very little interaction between the candidates. This year, with a tight election and a perceived need to be "aggressive," President Obama and Governor Romney interacted with each other quite directly. Obama was much sharper in this debate stylistically and substantively. One of the turning points in the debate was Candy Crowley's instant fact check of Romney's claim that Obama didn't call the Benghazi consulate attack an act of terror, which he clearly did in a Rose Garden speech the day after. Romney scored some points, though he is likely to be remembered more for his "binders full of women" remark than his repetition of the unemployment rate.

I would make two observations after watching the CNN ticker of independent voters in Ohio (the ticker tracks positive and negative reaction to what the candidates are saying).

First, viewers don't like it when the candidates talk over each other and jockey for speaking time. Every time Obama and Romney got into it--and they were both guilty of wrangling for attention at different times--the negative sentiment increased dramatically. This might be a silver lining for the Obama camp, who were guilty of coaching their candidate to be too polite in the first debate. Independent voters especially want their politicians to behave like grown ups who can negotiate differences without throwing elbows.

Second, these viewers were apparently tired of the anecdotal style of the candidates. It seemed like every time Obama or Romney started off an answer to a question with something variant of "well, it reminds me of a woman I met in Middle, America, who was also struggling," the negative sentiment increased. Once they turned to policy specifics, the positive sentiment increased. There are probably a few ways to interpret this, but I think it stands as evidence that voters actually want information about policy specifics rather than an endless litany of heart-warming or bone-chilling stories. There's a place for stories of our fellow citizens' struggles and victories, but anecdotes are too easily parried with counter-anecdotes. Both candidates might be advised to abbreviate their anecdotes and get down to brass tacks in the final debate--and what a debate it is shaping up to be!

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