Change Text Size
Email Columns Print page
Columns: The Online newspaper for the University of Georgia community
Show Index
October 20, 2008   Columns Articles | Inside UGA | Campaign talk
Magnify Gurian, Paul-Henri-h.action
Paul-Henri Gurian, associate professor of political science, recommends reading an average of polls to gain a better understanding of what people think. Photo by Peter Frey

Campaign talk

Political science professor discusses importance of presidential debates

Matt Weeks

Public Relations Coordinator

Recent and archived articles by Matt Weeks


Terry College of Business
Work: 706-542-3527
Email:
By Matt Weeks | October 20, 2008
Share    

As the presidential race heads toward a Nov. 4 Election Day showdown between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, every move the candidates make is scrutinized and studied.

To gain a better understanding of the strategy and theater of presidential debates, Columns recently sat down with Paul-Henri Gurian, associate professor of political science and noted expert on presidential primaries, campaign strategy and the Electoral College.

Columns: First, how important are debates, really?

Gurian: I guess the broad answer is this: the campaign itself-the convention, debates, ads, speeches, organizing-all of that stuff has an effect, but it's not the main thing that determines who wins the presidency. The main thing that determines who wins is partisanship. Most Americans feel a loyalty to one of the two parties and usually vote that way regardless of campaigns. Secondly, there are national conditions: the economy, war and peace, the big issues and so forth. But campaigns also have an effect, particularly in a close election like this one. There's no incumbent, and when there's a popular incumbent the campaign doesn't matter that much; and when there's an unpopular incumbent the campaign doesn't matter that much.

Once we get to the debates, most people have already made up their minds. There are people who vote on issues, though not that many of them, and those people already know where the candidates stand. Here I'm talking about people who say, "I'm voting on abortion or the Iraq War or immigration, and I know where they stand and I don't need to see debates."

At the point, there are 10 percent truly undecided voters and maybe another 10 percent who are persuadable. The persuadable people may be cross-pressured: They may usually vote Republican, but are concerned about economy, or they may usually vote Democratic but are concerned about Obama's lack of experience. So debates have potential to persuade some of those people, sometimes they do, more often they don't.

Columns: Are the debates something that people actually judge by themselves or do they more often listen to the media pundits' assessments?

Gurian: It's both. But media coverage apparently has a very big effect on how people think about the debates. Let me give you an example. In 1976 there was debate between President Gerald Ford and then-Gov. Jimmy Carter. In it, President Ford made an unfortunate statement, he mangled his words and said something that sounded a little stupid. He said that there's no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. This was during the Cold War when the Soviets did dominate Eastern Europe. He knew this, but what he meant was he didn't accept that and he didn't think it was a permanent situation.

People who watched the debate were asked that night who they thought did better and they said it was a tie and both did equally well. Then there were three days of media coverage focusing on Ford's misstatement and how he was ignorant of foreign affairs and so forth. After those three days people were asked who won the debate and overwhelmingly they said that Ford lost.

What most people see when they watch a debate is their preference is reinforced. They say, "My guy won." Then what happens is the pundits and the news coverage begin, and they tend to focus on something, especially if a candidate makes a mistake. So whether you watch a debate or not, simply watching the news coverage and being reminded of what happened has a strong affect on your perception.

Columns: Is nonverbal communication more important than talk in debates?

Gurian: Nonverbal cues are very important. By the time you get to the debates, 80-90 percent of people know who they're going to vote for and whatever they see and here reinforces their preference. Single issue voters already know where the candidates stand. But there is still that other 10-20 percent. Who are those people?

They are not the people who are going to get much out of detailed, substantive policy discussion. They look for other things, asking themselves questions like, "Can I trust this guy? Is he reliable?" They're looking for cues on a person's character. The way the candidates speak and the way they move matters.

You're more likely to see those things in a town hall debate. The candidates are more likely to interrupt each other, make hand gestures, walk up and engage with the audience. They'll even confront each other physically, walking up and pointing a finger or that type of thing. And people react to that. They'll say "I don't like people who do that or who act that way."

More from this issue

  • October 20, 2008

    Audiologist gives sound advice to clients in speech and hearing clinic

    For Alice Sanderson, an audiologist in UGA's Speech and Hearing Clinic, a rewarding day at work might include helping a 3-month-old hear her name for the first time or helping an elderly gentleman hear the birds after years of gradual hearing loss. Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    Dean selected for medical partnership campus in Athens

    Dr. Barbara L. Schuster, an internist and seasoned medical educator who chaired the department of internal medicine at Wright State University's Boonshoft School of Medicine in Ohio for a dozen years, has been named dean of the Medical College of Georgia/University of Georgia Medical Partnership Campus in Athens. Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    $8.3 million NIH grant will help study glycans’ role in stem, cancer cells

    The National Institutes of Health has awarded UGA a five-year, $8.3 million grant to further its research into the role cell-surface sugars known as glycans play in the development of stem cells and cancer cells. The grant allows the university to continue its role as a National Center for Research Resources Center for Biomedical Glycomics. Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    Large-animal medicine prof appointed to Callaway Chair

    Michelle Henry Barton, a College of Veterinary Medicine professor known as an inspiring teacher, mentor and accomplished researcher, has been appointed to a Fuller E. Callaway Professorial Chair. Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    Eco-focus, Eco-friendly

    The Odum School of Ecology will present an environmental film festival Oct. 23-26 at Ciné (234 W. Hancock Ave.) in downtown Athens. Open to the public, EcoFocus will feature world-class environmental films as well as children's programming, Q&A sessions with film directors and more. The full schedule of events is available online (www.ecofocusfilmfest.org). Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    Six faculty receive Brooks Awards for work in agriculture promotion

    Six trail-blazing faculty members were honored Oct. 7 at the annual D.W. Brooks Lecture and Faculty Awards for Excellence ceremony. Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    Redesigned Bulletin hits its target

    For a Web site about course listings, the new Bulletin site (bulletin.uga.edu) generates a lot of reaction. Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    Peabody-Smithgall lecture to examine media, democracy

    The Peabody Awards will present its second annual Peabody-Smithgall Lecture at 4 p.m. Oct. 23 in the Chapel. Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    Face time

    A new UGA study suggests that online social networking sites such as Facebook might be useful tools for detecting whether someone is a narcissist. Continue

  • October 20, 2008

    Study: Even occasional smoking can impair arteries

    Even occasional cigarette smoking can impair the functioning of your arteries, according to a new UGA study that used ultrasound to measure how the arteries of young, healthy adults respond to changes in blood flow. Continue

FOR MORE ONLINE
UGA Twitter Facebook
Columns is produced by the University of Georgia | Division of Marketing & Communications | Feedback