Dr. K’s Post Presidential Debate Debrief – Were you persuaded?

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on October 8, 2012

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Well, the first debate has come and gone, and now the echo chamber of the 24 hour news cycle has begun the repetition of opinions and memes that will constitute how most people remember the debate. That’s very different, by the way, from actually remembering the debate. The last time I blogged about politics was during the McCain Obama contest in 2008, in which my view was that McCain lost the election more than Obama won it. He lost it in the debates. He lost it in the issues that he ran on. And he lost it when he picked Sarah Palin as his VP candidate, because Palin’s presence on the ticket undermined the only effective case he could make against Obama…inexperience.

Now Romney and Obama have met and it was no clash of titans, nor a clash of ideas. Instead, and this is in no small part due to the 24 hour news cycle, it was all style over substance. I’ve said this before, (twice to client organizations in the past week in live presentations!) that in a contest between facts and persuasive signals, the signals win over the facts. If you have the facts on your side, the evidence, and logic too, but lack the ability to persuade, the person who is able to connect, relate and communicate is going to win, even if there are no actual facts to support that win. But when you have the facts on your side, AND are able to send persuasive communication signals, you can win over style alone.

Turn off the sound and watch the debates, and it is clear who wants to be on the stage, and who doesn’t, clear who wants to win votes and who doesn’t, clear who believes in their case, and who doesn’t. REGARDLESS OF THE FACTS, the style of the communication sends the signal. So what signals did these candidates send? Obama was indirect, hesitant, unhappy looking. Romney looked like he cared about people, cared about the issues, and was good humored in his caring too. Obama seemed to avoid talking with Romney, though the debate was supposed to be between the candidates, whereas Romney seemed to want to talk to everyone, the camera, the studio audience, Obama and Jim Lehrer too. Romney was able to capture his key points in simple phrases. Obama rambled, like an engineer or analyst working through a problem by thinking about it out loud.

One of the ways a candidate can win points in a debate is to point out inconsistencies. Another is to make meaningful comparisons. And another is to be a like-able person. One can also speak with authority, and look like they have it, too.

From my point of view, Obama missed every opportunity to send these persuasive signals, including when he referenced his wife at the beginning of the debate, and pointed out that it was their anniversary. Obama failed to use this moment to win support. Romney was respectful and made a joke about it too. From my point of view, Obama had the chance to seal the deal on this election. He had plenty of fodder that he could have used, plenty of opportunities to point out inconsistencies, to be playful and engaged, to speak of his vision for the country. Instead, he played defense all night, and poorly. The debate was his to lose. Romney had to play to win, because so much has gone wrong in his campaign, and the inconsistencies of his verbal history are so great as to make his platform weak to begin with. I think his is a weaker pitch, but he was stronger in making it.

So who won? On style points, this one clearly goes to Romney. He walked right up to the line of looking like a slick fast talking used car salesman, but if he went over that line, not by much. on facts, Obama seemed to be a bit more accurate, but both candidates used facts to support their opinions, rather than basing their opinions on the facts. In my opinion, they were both married to narratives that lack actual vision, and neither came across to me as a real leader, but rather, two experienced politicians saying what they think they need to say in order to win.

Really, Obama has a record to run on, but its weak in key areas, and hard to defend without being wonky. Romney has to sound moderate without losing the conservatives who got him to this dance, and as morally superior as many of them think they are, they seem quite willing to tolerate flip flops and not true statements, if it wins them power. There are still two debates left, and anything can happen.

For example, what if there is a national security issue being dealt with covertly, and the President can not say anything until it is done. Maybe they cornered that Egyptian head of Al Qaeda, and they are about to bring him home to face American justice. What If the most dangerous moment in some operation was actually taking place during the debate? What if this will be revealed before the election? There’s your October surprise! The debate won’t even be a footnote. Ah, I watch too much TV.

What did you think? Your comments and feedback are welcome below.

Be well,


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