First U.S. Presidential Debate Results

Debates are a great opportunity to examine candidates’ languages because they are less scripted. The candidates prep answers to typical questions, but the actual words used to deliver them are their own.

The problem with most debates is that they are question-driven, and this changes the dynamics of deception. The format of the first debate used questions mainly as hooks to start statements, so this was much less of a problem.

As usual, I’m assuming that people vote for candidates they like, rather than candidates who are most competent. Hence it is always the right strategy for candidates to appear more likable and appealing than they might really be.

Candidates can use four strategies for their debate presentation:

  1. Make blue-skies policy statements, with high spin. This reaches out to the maximal number of potential new supporters; but the attraction may not last very long precisely because the content is not connected to the candidate as a person.
  2. Make blue-skies policy statements, with low spin. This is a waste of an opportunity.
  3. Make track-record policy statements, with high spin. This reaches out to people who are on the boundaries of supporters, typically independents. If it can be made to work, this is probably the best possible strategy option, but it is hard to do. The problem is that the link to the candidate as an individual who has done or is going to do particular things makes it hard to also appear to be more attractive to people who might not like the things done or planned.
  4. Make track-record policy statements, with lower spin. This is a good strategy for expanding those who favor a particular candidate (if you can’t do 3) because those who are attracted are attracted more strongly and so more likely to stay attracted.

In the debate on Friday, both candidates made a hash of answering the first two questions (on the financial bailout). They had obviously not prepped questions in this area, and hadn’t even had much of a chance to talk about the issues — so their speech was very choppy and they kept changing their minds about what they were going to say half way through sentences.

On the remaining questions, it is clear that Obama was going for strategy 1, while McCain was going for strategy 4, to the extent that they made conscious or partly-conscious choices about what kinds of answers to give. The levels of spin in response to each of the 8 questions are shown in the figure below.

Comparative spin for 8 questions

Comparative spin for 8 questions

As usual, red is McCain and blue is Obama. Obama’s level of spin is high throughout (once he gets going) and his answers tend to be either of the form “we must do something” or “something must be done”. This high-spin strategy worked, and he is generally reckoned to have won the debate. The risk of this strategy, however, is that the attraction doesn’t stick; and I heard at least two commentators complain that Obama was so vague that it was hard to work out where he really stood on any issue. So there is danger here that, as people hear Obama more, they will be less and less impressed.

McCain’s levels of spin vary much more substantially. His two high-spin segments were in response to questions about the lessons of Iraq and the threat from Iran. In the first case, his answer was both short and off-topic; in the second he launched into a conversation about Obama’s statements about meeting with world leaders, interleaved with historical remarks about Nixon and China etc.. It looked like he was trying for his typical track-record policy statements, but he didn’t succeed very well because he kept dropping back into blue-skies policy. Thus there were answers that might have made an impact on independents, but he spent more time competing for those further away from his positions. By doing so less coherently than Obama, he probably didn’t do as well with any group. McCain has developed a partial way to get the effect of strategy 3 – he creates sandwich speeches, with chunks of low-spin, this-is-what-I’m-like content at the beginning and end, and blue-skies policy in the middle.

As debate speakers, both were quite poor. They were like my students who, having prepared an answer to an expected exam question, use it even though it doesn’t quite fit the question they were actually asked. I know that politicians become adept at making statements that appear to be answers to questions, but I thought they did it very transparently in the debate.


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