Professor, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University
With three weeks left to go, the election appears to be a battle of titans: anxiety pitted against anxiety. Anyone who still thinks campaigns are "debates on the issues" (e.g., whether the newly unveiled McCain economic plan is better or worse than the plan released the day before by Obama) – or the corollary that presidential debates are primarily arguments between two opponents about their policies and positions – should watch the dial-testing CNN conducted during the presidential and vice presidential debates, which the cable network has run at the bottom of the screen during each debate. The dials indicated where undecided voters were moved positively or negatively by what the candidates said.
When the candidates lapsed into wonk-speak, Washingtonese, or a detailed discussion of what is most on voters' minds – the economy – the dials flat-lined. The dials moved, however, when the candidates moved the voters. They shot up when the candidates used a colloquial turn of phrase that conveyed a point well (not "you betcha!" which didn't move anyone anywhere but down), brought something important but abstract close to home by relating it to the lives of real people (e.g., when Obama talked about the "mortgage crisis" faced by policemen or firemen at the end of the month), used a memorable turn of phrase (e.g., Obama's comment that the terrorism that came to our shores began in Afghanistan and Pakistan and will end there), or used a rhetorical device such as repetition that makes a phrase "sing" (as when Biden repeatedly used the phrase about McCain, "he's not a maverick," in a rhetorical flourish).
They skyrocketed when the candidates revealed something about themselves that spoke volumes to voters about who they are (as when Biden choked up as he took ownership of parenthood away from Sarah Palin, leading the dials immediately to hit the ceiling for women (and for men about a second and a half later, after they'd reassured themselves that Biden's display of emotion and their own response to it didn't make anybody gay).
In the last debate, what was supposed to be John McCain's favored setting – the town hall meeting – turned out to favor Obama. Why? Because it put him in a setting much closer to the stump, where he seems to feel more comfortable displaying his emotional intelligence, rather than the more traditional debate and interview formats, where he seems to feel more comfortable displaying his general intelligence – and it put him eye to eye with his audience in the room and around the country, leading him to respond more personally and personably.
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