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Columbia Missourian

MU professors: Presidential debate could be decisive

By Elizabeth Lucas
September 25, 2008 | 8:24 p.m. CDT


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COLUMBIA - The presidential debate between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama could decide the race.

MU communications professor Mitchell McKinney said certain characteristics of this year's presidential race create the right atmosphere for a debate that could greatly affect the outcome.  

"We can really get the measure of a person in the debate much more so than other types of campaign communication," McKinney said.    

For this reason most, if not every, televised presidential debate has influenced some voters. But some make bigger splashes than others.

The first televised presidential debates in 1960, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, are prime examples, and their ramifications are discussed by many scholars. Nixon, the incumbent vice-president, was an old and seasoned politician who had recently injured his knee. He looked pale and perspired visibly.

Kennedy was young, new to the national scene, and seen as inexperienced. But he was fit and tan, and he sounded presidential. Scholars speculate that those opposing images might have handed Kennedy the presidency.

Many debates contain specific moments or actions that sway voters. Scholars discuss George H.W. Bush's quick glances at his watch in the 1992 debate, and Al Gore's audible and exasperated sighs in the 2000 debate as leaving lasting impressions on viewers. Lloyd Bentsen's criticism, "You're no Jack Kennedy," shot at Dan Quayle in a 1988 debate, is one of the most famous examples.  

Debates often impact voters, but only some leave a bigger footprint on the path to presidency. McKinney believes this could be one of those debates.

As McKinney points out, this race is very tight. National polls show only a slight difference in the level of support for Barack Obama and John McCain. And with 8 percent to 10 percent of voters polling undecided, the race could easily go either way.  

Also, there still seems to be an element of the unknown about both candidates. William Benoit, another communications professor at MU who has researched presidential debates, said this is the first time since 1952 that neither candidate has held the office of president or vice-president.  

"These candidates are not as well known at this stage in the campaign," Benoit said.

Each must make voters familiar and comfortable with the idea that he should be the next president.

McKinney said undecided voters in focus groups have expressed concerns about both candidates. Is Obama experienced enough? Is McCain too old? The same voters are asking both these questions.

This might be an advantage for Obama, McKinney argued, because it might be easier for Obama to look and sound experienced and presidential than for McCain to look and sound younger.   

McCain, however, might have a style advantage. Based on the primary debates, McKinney describes Obama as capable of delivering emotional lines and stirring discourse. Obama lacks pithiness, however. He can appear flustered and halting when he has to keep his answers short.

McCain, on the other hand, dislikes long speeches and prefers short, direct responses, McKinney said. He comes across as crisp and straightforward, and this often works well in a debate.

Despite speculations about advantages or disadvantages, it is clear both candidates face a big challenge.  

Benoit emphasized that policies are what most voters care about.

"They (the candidates) need to talk about their policies, and show, at least make an argument, that their policies would be preferable to their opponent's," Benoit said. "And they also need to come across as a trustworthy, strong character who has the skills that are necessary to run government."

In the 90-minute, formal podium format, moderated by MU alum Jim Lehrer, the candidates will attempt to do just that. The debate's time and date has yet to be decided.