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What Did The Presidential Debates Teach Us?

Aaron Liu |
October 22, 2012 | 9:25 p.m. PDT

Assistant News Editor

Undecided voters ruled the 2012 debates. (Photo by C-SPAN)
Undecided voters ruled the 2012 debates. (Photo by C-SPAN)
Here are three takeaways following the conclusion of the 2012 presidential debates.

Undecided Voters Control Us:

The 2012 presidential debates have all but deified the undecided voter. Flash polls from various media outlets skip voters with the mental capacity to make up their minds and instead gauge the politically clueless; Candy Crowley invited them in and armed them with mics during the second debate; CNN basically stuck diodes in the heads of undecided voters to plot every ounce of their thoughts in squiggly-line form.

Why this obsession with indecision? Since the rest of America has already made up their minds on the election, undecided voters are the ones who will throw the election one way or the other. So it goes.

Down With The Moderator!

Take this scene from the third debate: moderator Bob Schieffer waits until Obama’s finished with his spiel, which has veered terribly off-topic.  "Let me get back to foreign policy-" the moderator begins, before Romney -- not to be undone -- overwhelms the poor man’s efforts with his own off-topic anecdote on education.

Whenever Obama and Romney wanted to riff past their time limit, they raised their voices until the moderator gave up. If they didn’t want to answer a question, they talked their way around it. Moderating became less about conducting a civil discussion and more about keeping two talking-heads in line.

Under such conditions, some moderators cracked while others survived. Candy Crowley and vice presidential-debate moderator Martha Radditz did well. Schieffer allowed the candidates to bend a couple rules, but still managed to transition to the third segment while shutting Romney down. Meanwhile, Jim Lehrer practically destroyed his century-old journalistic career with his failure to get the two candidates to acknowledge his existence.

But the precedent has been set. Follow the rules and answer the question when convenient. Otherwise it's the moderator's loss.

Keep Smiling:

Last week The Guardian pointed out that much of the fighting during the presidential debates has been on the visual front:

President Barack Obama sounded good in his second election debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But he looked good, too. Watching these debates is a lesson in the power of visual communication. It is the way the rival candidates stand, smile and move, as much as their arguments, that tell us who they are.

Both Obama and Romney understand the power of visual communication during the debates; Romney even practiced sitting on a barstool before the second debate in order to nail the visual component for television viewers. Such considerations left both candidates smiling incessantly, even while the other found their political credibility was being undermined by the other candidate.  

They may have nailed the visual cues but they failed terribly in masking their actual thoughts, unless their objective was to communicate as much aggression in a friendly gesture as possible. In which case, Biden wins.

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Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

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