Presidential debates are part campaign rally, part talk show interview, part smack down. I found this week's debate at Hofstra University a particularly interesting example of the genre. First, you can't put anything over on the undecided voters of Nassau County. They were all thrilled (I would assume) to be there, and were given strict orders not to react to the candidates' responses. But the camera did occasionally catch faces showing various degrees of perplexity, disagreement, enthusiasm. It was good people-watching if you were looking for reflexive responses - the kind that can't be hidden!
Regrettably, the main event became the showdown between the candidates, gleefully reported on by every major media outlet in the country. And though partisans seemed to get some basic animal thrill from watching their guys "duke it out," I would not be surprised if the undecided remained undecided. The candidates each began with a massive failure to play to the studio audience, and to the larger audience at home.
My guess is that both President Obama's and Governor Romney's debate coaches told them to look at the questioner when answering to show sincerity and commitment. But that's exactly what they did - they showed, all right, but who believed them? They both glombed on to the faces of their unsuspecting targets and fixed on them for way too long. I really felt for Jeremy Epstein, the first one to pose a question. It's hard enough to disengage when someone locks you in their gaze, but when that person is the President, what can you do? Jeremy said in a post-debate interview that he felt nervous, and that he felt he couldn't move because Mitt Romney was looking at him so intently.
After the debate, when Jeremy met the candidates, he said felt he was talking to "real people" -- and for him, that was the best part. Hmmmm. I wonder how a candidate could harness that power of connection during the debate? Here's a hint: real communication never takes place anywhere in the vicinity of a stare down. Relax your gaze, look around, open up your body and your gestures to include others in the audience. Take a cue from Oprah: you need to connect with everyone there -- they are likely as concerned as Jeremy about job prospects for young people. And use the camera to convey your sincerity to the audience at home. There seems to be some great aversion to the camera, as if the candidates had been coached not to try to speak to the very large viewing audience. I can only imagine why that would be -- it will seem more "real" if you don't occasionally connect with viewer at home?? Like this is in any way a "real" event we are just eavesdroping on! There is no fourth wall here. Use the tools of your media, fellas. You don't need to direct address us for paragraphs at a time, but occasionally look in our direction.
Both did a better job as the evening went on. By question three you could see the President loosening up and trying to connect. He did start playing to the crowd more, and his body language relaxed, as did his enunciation. But when Governor Romney interrupted him, you could see his defenses go up, his posture stiffened, he disengaged from the questioner and focussed on his "combatant." Partisans had been begging for that since the first debate. So if the evening was about a fight, they gave us a good show. But if I were an undecided voter, I would still have a lot of questions.