News Column

What to Look for in 1st Presidential Debate

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Most of us already know who we want our next president to be. Polls show that only about 2 or 3 percent of voters are still undecided whether they'll vote for Democratic incumbent Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.

So, Wednesday night in Denver, during the first of three presidential debates, those undecideds are whom Obama and Romney will be trying hardest to convince.

A big television audience is expected, so even many of those who already know whom they'll vote for will be paying close attention to what the candidates say.

But local experts say past debates have shown that it's not always what the candidates say, but how they say it. And how they look while saying it. And what they're doing while the opponent is saying his piece.

Here are some tips from local experts on how to determine who wins that first debate:

Does it Matter?

When the candidates square off at the University of Denver, each will be aiming to create momentum for his campaign. But do televised debates really have the power to sway voters and launch a campaign on the path to victory?

According to one election expert, probably not.

"We in the media, and I include myself in that, greatly dramatize the effect of these debates," said Dr. G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst and pollster affiliated with Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Despite all the fuss the media and political talking heads make over debates, Madonna said, they rarely do much to sway voters.

"It's just not accurate to say that these have been transformative moments," he said of past debates.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Madonna said two debates in the modern age did change the trajectory of elections.

The first, he said, was during the 1960 election between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. That debate, which was viewed by about 60 percent of the people in the United States watching television that night, is widely viewed as the spark that led Kennedy to victory.

The other, Madonna said, was during the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Reagan was able to shed his negative image -- he had been portrayed as wanting to end Social Security and bomb the Soviet Union -- and ended up looking rather amiable, Madonna said.

But those cases are rarities, he said.

These days, he said, fewer people watch the debates -- only about half the number that watch the Super Bowl. And those who do watch tend to already have their minds set on a candidate.

"This year in particular, there's a small pool of undecided voters," Madonna said.

That means Wednesday night is pretty unlikely to be an earth-shattering, election-altering evening.

"The myth is that they do," Madonna said of debates changing elections. "The fact is, they rarely do."

Body Language a Factor

Body language in a presidential debate may be more telling than the candidates' overall style and what they actually say, according to those who study body language.

Dr. Jennifer Schlegel, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kutztown University, said viewers should be aware that both positive and negative spins can be placed on any body movement, depending on the one doing the perceiving.

"The debate format allows Romney to play to his strength as a boardroom chairman and multimillionaire in a low-touch culture," Schlegel said. "He is not being asked to interact in this situation to the degree where Obama may appear more appealing and comfortable as a former community organizer playing to a crowd, while taking the measure of that crowd.

"Obama is linguistically flexible, but he sometimes comes off a little flat in a more formal setting such as a debate. I might give the edge to Romney in this type of debate as opposed to a town-hall format, where there is more interaction with the audience, which might allow Obama to fare better."

But the 44-year-old professor said viewers should look for what she called adapters in body movement such as sighs, scratching oneself inadvertently or finger-tapping usually done to relieve stress.

"Typically, these movements don't come off well because they may appear patronizing, look too much like performing or indicate an uncomfortable degree of nervousness," she said.

Schlegel urged viewers to be particularly watchful when the candidates greet each other.

"Look at who gets their hand out first; who invades the other's space; who puts their hand on top of their opponent's hand," she said.

Granted, different spins can be placed on any of these actions: Obama being respectful and presidential, or weak and tentative; Romney strong and forceful, or pushy and overly aggressive.

A sure sign that a debate is becoming more intense and confrontational, she said, is when candidates look less at the audience to deliver their message (which is what they want to do), but rather their shoulders turn more in line with each other.

"In those cases, expect more direct speech than indirect speech, more accusations and directives flying at each other," Schlegel said.

She said finger-pointing has a long history in American political debate when the purpose is to make points in a response. But using the end of the index finger to target the opponent may come off as too aggressive.

"There was a time when candidates interrupting one another might have seemed rude," Schlegel said. "But in today's media culture with multiple hosts always talking over one another, the interruption has become the norm.

"There is an art to (interruption) though, and some attempts to interrupt can make a candidate come off as weak."

But what is the one movement that is deadly for any candidate?

"If you start seeing a candidate rocking back and forth, the message is that they are having a difficult time containing themselves, or the debate has gone beyond their degree of comfort; they are beginning to feel crowded in that space, not usually a good sign," Schlegel said.

And if viewers aren't busy enough watching the candidates, they can watch the audience for cues as to what is really going on.

"It takes a lot fewer muscles to smile, so if you are seeing people frowning or looking stern, you know there is a lot of intense energy being expended in that room," she said.

Check facts and fact-checkers

The most important part of the presidential debates may not be the debates at all, said David Peshlar, a history teacher at Wilson High School.

"I think one of the biggest things is watching the post-debate analysis," he said. "They give you fact-checking sites you can use to determine whether the facts and statistics mentioned by the candidate are actually true.

"Candidates like to throw out percentages and it is important to know where they are getting their information and how biased it is."

Peshlar said watching the post-debate coverage will enhance the information voters take away from the debate itself, like positions on the economy, foreign policy and the war in Afghanistan.

But don't just rely on your favorite source of news.

For example, Fox News is known to lean right and favor Republican Romney. MSNBC is a left-leaning network whose pundits go easy on Obama, a Democrat.

"It's definitely important to check all the major news outlets," Peshlar said. "It's important to get both sides, left and right."

If you are still undecided, Peshlar advises, arm yourself with information and don't rely on someone else to make up your mind for you.

"The best way is to help yourself," he said.

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