In the aftermath of the election, political pundits have inundated the media and the web with postmortem analyses of the results, most of them attributing Barack Obama’s victory to his get-out-the-vote “ground game,” others to the president’s advertising campaign, some to Mitt Romney’s “47%” video, some to the Latino, Asian, and African-American, and women’s voting blocs, some to campaign finances, and some even to Hurricane Sandy.
Allow me to chime in with what is my admittedly parochial point of view by giving due credit to the candidates’ presentation styles. When citizens vote for the leader of their country, they are choosing an authority figure, and they want that person to appear authoritative. Single issues such as the economy, jobs, climate control, immigration, family values, foreign policy, and women’s rights notwithstanding, voters are seeking a father (and someday, maybe, a mother) figure, which, by any measure, is a gut decision. They are impelled more by their hearts than their minds. “Who’s your Daddy?”
Andrew Kohut agrees. He is the president of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that did extensive public opinion polling during the election. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Kohut wrote, “Postelection talk of ‘lessons learned’ is often exaggerated and misleading.” He then went on to add:
In particular, they are paying too little attention to how weak a candidate Mitt Romney was… Just 47% of exit-poll respondents viewed him favorably, compared with 53% for Mr. Obama.Throughout the campaign, Mr. Romney's favorable ratings were among the lowest recorded for a presidential candidate in the modern era. A persistent problem was doubt about his empathy with the average voter. By 53% to 43%, exit-poll respondents said that Mr. Obama was more in touch than Mr. Romney with people like themselves.
James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, goes even further than Mr. Kohut. A veteran political watcher who has covered many elections since his days as Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter, Mr. Fallows wrote an article for the September issue of the magazine in anticipation of the 2012 presidential debates in which he referenced a political meme:
…the easiest way to judge “victory” in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language.
Mr. Fallows’ words echo a noted study (noted in the presentation trade) conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian of the Department of Psychology at UCLA. The study ranked the relative impact of the three key dynamics of interpersonal communication:
Visual: Body language
The results: the body language had the greatest impact, the voice next, while the story had the least impact—substantiation of the “sound turned off” premise.
You can see further substantiation in two events on the culminating night of the 2012 election: Mr. Obama’s victory speech and Mr. Romney’s concession speech. Granted that one man was feeling lift of exhilaration and the other the pain of defeat, but by viewing each speech (via the YouTube links)—with the sound turned off—you’ll readily see why Mr. Obama had a ten point advantage in the Pew Research exit polls.
Watch for three visual factors:
Eyes: Both men read their speeches from teleprompters, but as Mr. Romney shifted from between the teleprompter panels, his eyes darted an instant before his head turned, making him appear furtive. Mr. Obama turned his eyes and head at the same time, making him appear to be connecting directly with his audience.
Gestures: Mr. Romney made minimal use of his hands and arms, appearing constrained, while Mr. Obama used his hands and arms expressively, appearing animated and enthusiastic.
Stance: Mr. Romney stood either ramrod straight or leaning back, while Mr. Obama repeatedly leaned forward to his audience. As Mr. Kohut said, “exit-poll respondents said that Mr. Obama was more in touch than Mr. Romney.”
Yesterday’s post, in anticipation of the third and final presidential debate of 2012, described how Al Gore agreed with his opponent, George W. Bush, seven times during one of their 2000 debates. In last night’s debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, Mr. Romney outdid Mr. Gore nearly twofold:
1.…we’re going to have to recognize that we have to do as the president has done. I congratulate him on — on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaida.
2.There was an effort on the part of the president to have a status of forces agreement. And I concurred in that and said we should have some number of troops that stayed on. That was something I concurred with…That was your posture. That was my posture as well.
3. After Mr. Obama, speaking of his handling of Syria, said, “What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go,” Mr. Romney said:
Recognize I believe that Assad must go.
4. After Mr. Obama, speaking of his handling of Libya, said, “We did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Mr. Romney said:
I don’t want to have our military involved in — in Syria. I don’t think there’s a necessity to put our military in Syria at — at this stage. I don’t anticipate that in the future.
5. After moderator Bob Schieffer of asked Mr. Obama, “During the Egyptian turmoil, there came a point when you said it was time for President Mubarak to go,” and Mr. Obama said, “Right,” Mr. Schieffer turned to Mr. Romney for his position, and he said:
I believe, as the president indicated and said at the time, that I supported his — his action there….once it exploded, I felt the same as the president did
6. After Mr. Obama said of Mr. Romney, “He’s praised George Bush as good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment,” Mr. Romney said:
My plan to get the industry on its feet when it was in real trouble was not to start writing checks. It was President Bush that wrote the first checks. I disagree with that.
7. After Mr. Obama said, “What I now want to do is to hire more teachers, especially in math and science, because we know that we’ve fallen behind when it comes to math and science,” Mr. Romney said:
Look, I — I love to — I love teachers, and I’m happy to have states and communities that want to hire teachers, do that.
8. I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel.
9.After Mr. Obama said, “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. I’ve made that clear when I came into office. We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy,” Mr. Romney said:
And crippling sanctions are something I’d called for five years ago when I was in Israel speaking at the Herzliya Conference. I laid out seven steps. Crippling sanctions were number one. And they do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy. It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions.
10. When Mr. Schieffer asked Mr. Romney about the president’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014, he replied:
Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014. And when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.
11. We look at what’s happening in Pakistan and recognize that what’s happening in Pakistan is going to have a major impact on the success in Afghanistan. And — and I say that because I know a lot of people just feel like we should just brush our hands and walk away. And I don’t mean you, Mr. President, but some people in the — in our nation feel that Pakistan (doesn’t ?) — being nice to us and that we should just walk away from them.
This is — this is an important part of the world for us. Pakistan is — is technically an ally, and they’re not acting very much like an ally right now, but we have some work to do. And I — I don’t blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained. We had to go into Pakistan; we had to go in there to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do.
12.When Mr. Schieffer asked, “Let me ask you, Governor, because we know President Obama’s position on this, what is — what is your position on the use of drones? Mr. Romney replied:
Well, I believe that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.
To repeat the George Santayana quote I cited after Mr. Obama’s flat presentation in the first debate, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Twelve years ago, during the presidential election that pitted Vice President Al Gore against then Texas Governor George W. Bush, the candidates met in three debates, just as President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are doing this year. One dynamic from the 2000 campaign could carry forward to this year: dramatic reversals in presentation style. Just as Mr. Obama made a significant shift from his listless demeanor in the first debate to what Maureen Dowd called an “alpha tone” in his second, Al Gore made significant shifts in his style between his debates.
In the first contest, Mr. Gore, who was expected to dominate the notoriously language-challenged Mr. Bush, came out roaring like a lion. His statements and rebuttals were filled with aggressive and divisive words like “wrong,” “not,” “differences,” “mistake,” and “opposite.” His manner was also combative, continually punctuated by condescending sighs, derisive head-shaking, scornful frowns, and disdainful eye-rolling.
The arrogant behavior immediately boomeranged. Television broadcasters had a camera isolated on Mr. Gore for reaction shots. Their news directors took the output of this camera and edited his expressions into a rapid-cut sequence that they ran in their local and national broadcasts repeatedly. Public and media criticism rained down on the vice president.
In response, Mr. Gore made a sharp about face in the second debate and came out like a lamb. During the 90- minute event, he expressed agreement with his opponent seven times—earning him further public criticism. So Mr. Gore reversed field again and swung back to his aggressive ways in the third debate.
At one point, moderator, Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour, who also moderated the first Obama-Romney debate,asked Mr. Bush the same question he would later ask Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney:
I’d like to know how you see the differences between the two of you
Mr. Bush rose from his seat and began to address his answer to the town-hall audience
Well, the difference is that I can get it done. That I can get something positive done on behalf of the people. That’s what the question in this campaign is about...
As he continued his answer, Al Gore stood up, and started to walk across the stage, directly toward his opponent, almost menacingly. Unaware of Mr. Gore’s move, Mr. Bush continued:
…It’s not only what’s your philosophy and what’s your position on issues, but can you get things done?
In the middle of his statement, Mr. Bush turned to see Mr. Gore approaching, paused for a beat, then nodded at Mr. Gore and smiled, evoking titters from the audience.
Then, Mr. Bush turned back to the audience and said:
And I believe I can.
The audience titters gave way to laughter.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll about the effects of the debate on public opinion gave George W. Bush a seven point advantage over Al Gore.
Mr. Gore compensated for his initial aggressive behavior by being passive, and then he overcompensated for being passive by being even more aggressive. Mr. Obama compensated for his initial passive behavior by being aggressive.
President Obama’s fiery performance in the second presidential debate on Tuesday left media pundits perplexed by the 180 degree turnabout from
his flat demeanor in the first debate: “Perhaps it was mere fatigue
that night in Denver. Or overconfidence. Or lack of preparation. Or the altitude,” mused Politico’s Roger Simon, or as the president himself said, “I was too polite.”
was preparation, no question. We have no way of knowing just how much
time and effort each candidate devoted to preparation, but we do know
that on the day before that first debate, Mr. Obama made a campaign stop
at Hoover Dam and, according to the Wall Street Journal:
complained Monday during a phone call with a campaign volunteer that
his aides are "keeping me indoors all the time…making me do my
homework." However, a brown tarp blocking the view of the resort's
basketball court suggests Mr. Obama has been shooting some baskets
In sharp contrast, in the run up to the second debate, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mr. Obama spent
three days of prep sessions that began Saturday at a five-star resort
in Williamsburg….Outside the sessions, Mr. Obama has spent time walking
the grounds of the resort, which is set along the James River, and
working out at the gym
The difference was dramatic and,
because the media is abuzz with commentary about body language, eye
contact, succinctness, and assertiveness, I will confine my comments to
only one aspect of preparation: facts.
By far, the most dramatic moment in Tuesday's debate came when Governor Romney challenged Mr. Obama on his handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya:
There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a
spontaneous demonstration, or actually whether it was a terrorist
attack. And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist
attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American
The president replied:
OBAMA: The day after
the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the
American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what
happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're
going to hunt down those who committed this crime.
And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.
the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State,
our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead
when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what
we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as
Commander in Chief.
CNN’s Candy Crowley, the moderator of the debate, turned to Mr. Romney and said:
CROWLEY: Governor, if you want to...
ROMNEY: Yes, I -- I...
CROWLEY: ... quickly to this please.
I -- I think interesting the president just said something which --
which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden
and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That's what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror.
It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?
The governor glowered at the president. Mr. Obama stared back.
OBAMA: Please proceed governor.
I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the
president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir. So let me -- let me call it an act of terror...
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He -- he did call it an act of terror.
as the CEO of a public company whose revenues have not met expectations
must prepare for a quarterly earnings call with investors, or the CSO
of a pharmaceutical company whose drug has failed clinical trials must
prepare for a Board of Directors meeting, or a product manager whose
product missed a shipping date must prepare for a meeting with a
customer, political candidates must prepare for the worst case scenario
against their opponents and have a strong response at the ready.
since the attack a month earlier, the Benghazi issue was roiling in the
media, and was sure to come up in the debate. Each candidate's party
was hurling charges and counter charges at the other in public, so each
candidate had to have a carefully delineated response and a
well-supported argument and to be fully prepared to deliver it under the
pressure of a live television debate.
Mr. Romney, in his drive to
prove that the president was "misleading," missed an important fact:
Mr. Obama in his drive to prepare for the issue, knew the fact cold.
The importance of thorough preparation was put forth in 55 BC by the great Roman orator, Cicero:
the orator calls in the aid of memory to retain the matter and the
words with which thought and study have furnished him, all his other
merits, however brilliant, we know will lose their effect.
Last month, in anticipation of last night’s first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, veteran journalist James Fallows did a lengthy piece in the Atlantic in which he wrote, “the easiest way to judge ‘victory’ in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language.”
With or without the sound, any viewer could see stark differences between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. During most of the ninety-minute debate, the image on the CNN broadcast was a split screen of the two candidates in close-up; so viewers could see both of them simultaneously. During most of Mr. Romney’s speaking turns, Mr. Obama was nodding in seeming agreement. The image was a déjà vu of the first presidential debate in 1960, when Richard Nixon, unaware of the camera, nodded while John F. Kennedy was speaking. As philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The nodding was only the first of six other tactical mistakes the president made:
He scowled while listening, looking angry and petulant
His kept his eyes cast down rather than looking at his opponent
His answers were filled with diverse statistics and subjects, rarely ending with a clear point
He often failed to counter Mr. Romney’s charges while Mr. Romney repeatedly countered his
He didn’t attack Mr. Romney’s previously-revealed vulnerable positions
He appeared ill-prepared and halting as evidenced by his repeated iterations of “um.”
Following the debate, I surfed the cable channels for post mortems and found a consensus—even from those inclined to favor Mr. Obama: the Huffington Post’s lead headline: “Romney wins the night,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews wrote, "Where was Obama tonight?" and this morning's New York Times leadstory:“Romney Wins Debate Praise as Obama Is Faulted as Flat.”
There are still two more debates to come. Will Mr. Obama take Mr.Santayana’s advice or will he allow Mr. Romney to overtake him?
As 50 million viewers prepare to watch the first of this year’s presidential debates tonight, the media is abuzz with discussions and opinions about the major issues: jobs, taxes, healthcare, Libya, Iran, Israel, abortion, immigration, and same sex marriage. For many voters, this is a single-issue election that drives them to favor one candidate or another, but all voters are driven by one factor more powerful than all the others: their gut feelings.
The feelings actually emanate high above the gut, from a group of brain cells called “mirror neurons.” As their name implies, these cells mirror feelings between people, creating an instinctive emotional bond between them. First discovered two decades ago in experiments with lab monkeys, the mirroring phenomenon became known as “monkey see, monkey do.” In humans, what people see, they feel; if we see another person wince in pain, we cringe, if we see another person giggle uncontrollably, we smile, if we see an anxious person, we feel ill at ease, if we see a confident person, we feel elated. These feelings are also called “empathy.”
Political pollsters call them “likeability,” a more sedate term than "gut" and less touchy-feely than "empathy", yet all of the terms describe the primal emotions that candidates generate in the electorate. After all, the president of a nation, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is very much like the chief of a tribe or the patriarch (and perhaps someday, the matriarch) of a clan. Followers of any leader want to feel—deep inside—that they are in good, strong hands. “Who’s your Daddy?”
Theodore H. White, the great political historian who chronicled the presidential elections of 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972, saw these primal forces at work in the seminal 1960 debate that pitted the patrician John F. Kennedy against the rumpled Richard M. Nixon. In his classic, The Making of the President 1960, Mr. White wrote thatdebates “give the voters of a great democracy a living portrait of two men under stress and let the voters decide, by instinct and emotion, which style and pattern of behavior under stress they preferred in their leader…[they] generalize this tribal sense of participation, this emotional judgment of the leader, from the few to the multitude.”
Half a century later, Mr. White’s words were echoed by Dante Chinni in a Wall Street Journalarticle anticipating tonight’s debate between President Obama and Governor Romney:
Of all the measures of a presidential candidate, the most useful may be the most basic: whether voters have “positive” feelings toward him. In every recent presidential race, the candidate with the higher positive numbers has won the White House.
Mr. Chinni’s article went on to list the likability figures for the month preceding the three most recent presidential elections and that of the most recent month this year:
Will the patrician Mr. Romney break the likability string or will the cool Mr. Obama keep it alive?
Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, who was the driving force behind the controversial Vietnam War, went on to a more successful stint as head of the World Bank. He lived until the ripe old age of 93, but according to his New York Times obituary, “spent the rest of his life wrestling with the war’s moral consequences.”
As part of his struggle, he agreed to be the subject of a 2003 documentary in which he expressed regrets but ultimately defended his actions. The film is called The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara. Lesson Ten is about communication, and it contains sound advice for presenters about what not to do. Said Mr. McNamara:
One of the lessons I learned early on: never say never. Never, never, never. Never say never. And secondly, never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you. And quite frankly, I follow that rule. It's a very good rule.
Unfortunately, that rule has taken on a life of its own in the modern business world. Many consultants urge presenters to stay on message. And yes, it’s good to do that--within bounds. But think about it: How can it be a “very good rule” not to be responsive to other people? In interpersonal relationships, not answering a question can lead to an argument; in business, not answering a question can lead to the failure of a deal. Only in politics, where the public has become inured to the practice of ducking and spinning does the public tolerate unanswered questions. But even there, the McNamara rule can backfire.
In the contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry threw his hat into the ring late in the game, but his track record of three consecutive victories in Texas elections and strong conservative support vaulted him to the top of the public opinion polls very quickly. However, after hapless performances in live televised debates, Mr. Perry’s poll numbers sank as fast as they had risen. The polls were confirmed in his dismal showings in the first three primaries, and he withdrew from the race five months after he entered.
Mr. Perry’s two most notorious performance stumbles were his brain lock in one debate and a bungled statement in another, each of which went viral on the Web and in the media. But what was largely overlooked in all that attention was a Robert McNamara moment in the October 18, 2011 debate on CNN, when moderator Anderson Cooper asked this question:
COOPER: Governor Perry, the 14th Amendment allows anybody. A child of illegal immigrants who is born here is automatically an American citizen. Should that change?
PERRY: Well, let me address Herman's issue that he just talked about.
COOPER: Actually, I'd rather you answer that question.
PERRY: I understand that. You get to ask the questions, I get to answer like I want to.
“I get to answer like I want to.” Imagine a salesperson saying that to a customer, a mid-level manger to a senior executive, an executive to a board member, or a CEO to an investor. Meeting over. No deal.
Imagine saying that to your significant other. No comment.
Anderson Cooper called Mr. Perry on it, “That's actually a response, that's not an answer.”
Four months later, in another debate among Republican candidates, a déjà vu Robert McNamara moment occurred in this exchange between Mitt Romney and CNN moderator John King:
KING: What is the biggest misconception about you in the public debate right now?
ROMNEY: We've got to restore America's promise in this country where people know that with hard work and education, that they're going to be secure and prosperous and that their kids will have a brighter future than they've had. For that to happen, we're going to have to have dramatic fundamental change in Washington, D.C., we're going to have to create more jobs, have less debt, and shrink the size of the government. I'm the only person in this race --
KING: Is there a misconception about you? The question is a misconception.
ROMNEY: You know, you get to ask the questions want, I get to give the answers I want.
You must respond to all questions. This is not to say that you should give away state secrets; you have every right to decline to answer on the basis of confidentiality, competitive data, or company or legal policy, but you must provide a rational reason — and “I get to answer like I want to” is irrational.