October 15th, 2008
07:59 PM ET

Three weeks to go – what's working for the candidates?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/15/art.debate1.jpg]
Drew Westen
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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Filed under: Barack Obama • John McCain • Raw Politics
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. cathy corrigan

    Obama won tonight. I am so sick of hearing how he fought for his country. Obama is soft speaking and I don't want mccaine. He has a short fuse.

    October 15, 2008 at 10:58 pm |
  2. Karen

    Great debate tonight !!! BUT what is with McCain? He spent most of the debate huffing and puffing into the mic, rolling his eyes and making faces. Very presidential !!! Very mature !!!

    October 15, 2008 at 10:34 pm |
  3. Anthony P.

    I say McCain should dump Sarah Palin for "PLUMBER JOE" he mentioned "PLUMBER JOE" more times than he EVER did his running mate Sarah Palin in 90 minutes than he did his entire campaign.

    October 15, 2008 at 10:05 pm |
  4. Cindy

    I am so glad that you all brought up these dial tests. I noticed in these things that when Soledad asked these people to raise their hands as to who they'd vote for in the last debate that McCain had more people voting for him yet the lines on the screen were always more favorable to Obama. Seems to me that these things are rigged. If you are voting for McCain then you'd give him a more favorable rating. Who is doing these test, and from where? It is obvious they are not correct. I am not the only one that noticed that discrepancy.


    October 15, 2008 at 8:51 pm |
  5. Mary V., Salt Lake City, UT

    I will tell you, what IS NOT working. In our state, everyone I talk to is talking about the disgusting attacks from the Republicans! And this is a "red" state!

    The Republican-lie-hate-fear mongers are shooting themselves in the foot! Everyone I know is disturbed that people who "claim' to be Christian could be SO vile!

    I am a Catholic, and I cant tell you that many of us are voting for Sen. Obama, because his attitude, his calm, his ideas..... are brilliant!

    We are SO sick and tired of the politics of HATE, DIVISION, FEAR AND LIES!


    October 15, 2008 at 8:32 pm |
  6. Jt from TN

    John MCcain failed to show up at the last debate considering it was a town hall format. What struck me was the fact that, MCcain asked for this town hall in fact, he challenged O'bama to join him in town halls. I think MCcain is kinda glad O'bama did not join. MCcain had homew court advantage and lost is my opinion.

    October 15, 2008 at 8:21 pm |