Kathryn Olson, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, specializes in the rhetoric of leadership and presidential debates.
When studying debates, you look less at what the candidates are saying and more at why they’re saying it?
Correct. A lot of what the debate is about is letting voters learn about what kind of person the candidate is, because, of course, whoever is elected president is going to face unknown challenges and situations – as they do in the debates. So the debates are often thought of as a place where we can see the candidates in a less scripted format, and voters think of the debates as an opportunity to get some insight into the kind of leader each might be in untested waters. We can learn about their policies, but … we need insight on the question “is this the type of person we want leading the nation for the next four years?”
If the debates are contests, there have to be winners and losers, right? What does it mean to “win” a debate?
I would say that’s the wrong question. That’s a question the media loves because they enjoy framing a debate as a horse race, but I don’t think that’s rich enough to capture what is potentially going on in terms of voter learning. I don’t really think about the question of winners and losers, but ask instead, what were the particular challenges each candidate had, and how well did she or he address them? Candidates in the same debate often have different, even opposing, rhetorical problems to confront, and a single candidate may have different rhetorical challenges in each debate of the same campaign as the race unfolds, circumstances and revelations change, and the candidate’s previous debate performances are considered.
Do you have some guidance for regular people watching the debate?
I think the important thing to remember is that every candidate has his or her own rhetorical problems to address, and they shift as the race shifts. So if citizens focus on how astutely the debater approaches those and how successful he or she is on that front, rather than some sort of overall sense of winning or losing, that will offer greater insight into the candidates as public leaders.
For example, one candidate might be struggling to show credibility as a national or international leader, while another might be aiming to shore up momentum or prove that he or she can sustain excitement through the long electoral cycle. So every candidate, even in the same debate, doesn’t necessarily face the same set of challenges.
You’ve researched rhetoric and leadership. That plays a role in the candidates’ goals during the debates?
Yes, performing leadership is part of what’s going on here. Presidents lead with effective use of symbols. Rarely do they lead by unilateral action. Basically, you rally people around a viewpoint and encourage them to act. Debates are an opportunity to see whether the candidates have the ability to do that. So, in a sense, we see them performing as leaders. How will they handle an unknown challenge? How do they work under pressure? What kind of leader will they be?
Do you think the media plays a big role in framing the debates?
Yes. A good example of this would be the second Carter-Ford debate in 1976 when a Ford answer suggested that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union. The immediate public reaction to the debate was that Ford won, but, based on that comment, the media kept repeating that Ford was out of touch with international affairs; by the next day, the public opinion about who won the debate had changed.
Could that happen 40 years later, in 2016?
I think today it’s a little different than in 1976. We have MSNBC, we have Fox News, and people have blogs and people have websites. So people can attend to the part of the story they choose, and they also can be part of making the story. People are talking to each other on social media, not even waiting until a debate’s end to make an overall assessment, but minute by minute, they’re putting comments out there that are shaping their perceptions and the perceptions of others.
Are the debates more than just political theater?
The debates serve a lot of civic functions. The very fact that we have debates legitimates the American system of presidential succession and reinforces the assumption that “the people” decide. Debates also provide a mechanism for holding candidates accountable for previous choices and promises. Furthermore, they are special because they allow citizens to watch and assess the competencies of those vying to be the nation’s top leader as they are tested side-by-side and to make comparative judgments. Additionally, the debates are important for voter learning, not just about particular candidates, but about the issues and how the government works. These are noteworthy functions, apart from how any one debate goes.