U. S. Presidential Debate – Déjà vu All Over Again

The first televised Presidential debate featuring Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy on September 26, 1960, draws an uncanny parallel to the one which took place 48 years to the date later. In the earlier debate, the television audience thought that Kennedy won primarily based on his strong visual appearance and engaging style. The debate of last Friday produced a similar outcome.

Although both candidates presented their respective party’s platforms last Friday well, I give the edge for voter appeal to Senator Barack Obama primarily based on his nonverbal connection. Obama generally had a pleasant expression on his face and smiled at some of Senator John McCain’s responses, particularly during the last half of the debate. He artfully answered questions to Jim Lehrer (the moderator), McCain, the audience in the hall and the television audience. On a number of occasions he spoke directly to the camera (i.e. the television audience), especially during his opening and closing statements. Clearly Obama understands The Rock Star Attitude™ (show people you like them and they will like you back), which has created his broad appeal to the U. S. public.

McCain would have been the clear victor had it not been for his odd facial expressions, particularly while Obama was answering questions. For the most part McCain looked irritated and annoyed. He frequently smiled and shook his head at Obama’s responses. McCain answered the questions directly to Lehrer and didn’t look at Obama, even when Obama was speaking. Moreover he never looked at the live audience and only briefly looked at the camera. Were McCain to have been more engaging, as he was in the Saddleback College interview, he would have created a much more likable perception.

But, it was the message that was the strong point for McCain. For the most part, he answered questions in a direct, positive, unambiguous manner. Obama, on the other hand, frequently relied on talking points from his campaign.

Obama didn’t come off as confident as he could have by beginning most responses with a stutter, such as “A, a, as I said before,” “He, he, here’s what I can tell the American people” and “Le, le, let me just make a couple of points.” McCain, on the other hand, typically took a beat and then responded, often in professorial style, especially when talking about foreign affairs.

In addition to his repeated stammers, Obama had an incredible number of fillers: 146 “uhs” and 8 “you knows”. By peppering his presentation with filler words, Obama created the perception of uncertainty. McCain used some fillers, too, but far fewer: 31 “uhs” and one “you know”.

Further eroding his perception of confidence, Obama used many non-positives. For example instead of saying “I think the first question is whether we should have gone into the war in the first place”, he would have come across much stronger simply by saying “The question is whether …” In all, Obama used 32 “I thinks” and four “I believes”. McCain used some non-positives, too, but many fewer: 14 “I thinks” and one “I believe.”

McCain continually pounded Obama for his lack of knowledge and experience of foreign affairs. On a number of occasions he said that Obama “doesn’t understand” and “doesn’t get it.” Obama didn’t help himself by stating eight times that Senator McCain was “right”. McCain demonstrated his significant knowledge about Georgia, Ukraine and Russia and dove deep into the issues. By comparison, Obama seemed to be on the surface. For his part, Obama continually attempted to link McCain with the Bush administration.

Both men had some good sound bites. McCain said the financial rescue plan is “not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.” Obama, “When I’m president I will go line by line to make sure we’re not spending money unwisely.”
McCain used some nice humor several times. Once when Lehrer asked Obama to repeat his statement to McCain, McCain asked Lehrer “Are you afraid I couldn’t hear him?” Earlier he describe the current financial environment as “the greatest fiscal crisis of our time and I’ve been around for a little while.”

Both men had articulation issues by dropping “g”s (doin’, talkin’, tryin’) and not enunciating words clearly (hafta, gonna, becuz, wanna, gotta). McCain says “hunderd” instead of “hundred”. By improving their articulation both Obama and McCain will add polish to their presentations.

McCain demonstrated his ability to stay focused when answering questions by speaking over the interruptions of Obama and not allowing Obama interrupt him. Obama illustrated similar skills, although McCain interrupted him fewer times.
Both candidates used good inflection as they emphasized key words and phrases. McCain frequently lowered his volume to emphasize important points. Both had strong, well-rehearsed closing statements. McCain, who spoke last, was exceptional.

In the end, Obama was more likeable with his friendly, open, engaging expressions. McCain spoke more confidently and demonstrated academic knowledge of the topics. But, just remember, likeability is based 55% on how you look, 38% on how you sound and 7% on what you say. I suppose you might say it was Obama 55, McCain 45.

My advice to John McCain: Get a new speech coach or listen to the one you have if he or she’s telling you to be more engaging. For Obama, speak positively and succinctly on point.

I welcome your comments regarding my observations and/or your perceptions of the candidates.

Stay tuned for the 90-minute Vice Presidential Debate this Thursday, October 2 at 6:00 p.m. PDT. I’ll post my comments within 24 hours of the debate’s conclusion.

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