The debate is in the details, Penn State professor says

October 21, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

MONT ALTO, Pa. -- John McCain rolling his eyes in the last presidential debate.

The candidates bickering over "Joe the Plumber."

Late-night comedy shows and unsponsored advertising.

Penn State Mont Alto professor Alfred G. Mueller II has a list of distractions he perceives as pulling voters' attention away from true messages in the presidential race between McCain and Barack Obama.

"When you're dealing with distractions, you have to do a reality check every once in a while. ... A frustrated voter is not a good voter," Mueller said.

Mueller recommends that voters step back from advertisements that play too much to their emotions and ignore comedy programs and propaganda not under the candidates' control. He hosted Debate Watch on campus so that his students could share reactions to the debates.


"The last debate was a little bit different because we saw 'Joe the Plumber.' The reason why everyone is focused on 'Joe the Plumber' is because it's a specific detail," Mueller said.

Mueller said that since 1896, the winning candidate is always one who has a clear message and can speak in specific terms. He pointed to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton winning with wide margins after providing voters with speeches full of concrete, vivid details.

However, the professor criticized both Obama and McCain for sticking to canned answers and generalities. He'd prefer they demonstrate how their policies affect, for instance, "Jane Smith, single mother of two from Dearborn, Mich."

Mueller talks about body language in his presidential rhetoric and persuasion/propaganda courses.

"Body language tells a lot," he said, noting that McCain is perhaps limited by his physical inability to lift his arms completely.

Mueller likened McCain's recent eye-rolling to Al Gore's sighing in 2000.

"The American public does not want someone who doesn't listen to people," said Mueller, who guessed that McCain acted in that manner as a way to stay on the offensive.

Mueller has also identified the "Tina Fey factor" as something that presents a challenge to the McCain campaign. Voters might confuse the "Saturday Night Live" character's idiosyncrasies with the real Sarah Palin. He likened the situation to Chevy Chase making Gerald Ford look like a "bumbler" in 1976.

"The power of comedy is it either overemphasizes or underemphasizes the person's stupidity," he said.

Mueller said that confidence can cause people to unknowingly perceive someone as an effective leader.

"Don't stop listening to the message because the body language looks good," he said.

If the election were held today, Mueller would predict Obama as the winner. However, he expects that the poll margins between the two candidates should start to shrink in the coming weeks.

"The goal of Barack Obama is to not screw up, to not make a mistake and to appear presidential," Mueller said.

The professor would not divulge his candidate of choice and said he tries to keep his preferences separate from his teaching.

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