The 7,200-seat Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Colorado was packed with spectators on Wednesday night on October 3, 2012. All spotlights were on President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential candidate & former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as they prepared for a face off in their first Presidential debate. Before the debate started, everyone expected Obama to get through it without a gaffe. The onus was on Romney to keep his hopes of the White House alive and as such needed to convey a strong message. Given his draggy speeches, it seemed like a tough task for Romney, but as the debate approached its end Romney knew he had delivered.
As per a study undertaken at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, titled Rapid Perceptual Integration of Facial Expression and Emotional Body Language (Hanneke, Corne, Beatrice, et al), “The face and the body both normally contribute in conveying the emotional state of the individual.” That’s exactly what the 67 million viewers across the globe attested that day. While the Republican challenger appeared practiced, at ease, confident and fluent in all things Obama, the President looked shaky. Obama’s answers were slow, flat and cautious. In fact, one of the memorable moments of that night will be Romney, standing confident and beckoning from the podium while Obama, head down, playing into his image as philosophic.
Although a week later a vehement Obama ramped up his attacks on Romney’s debate performance, telling supporters that what they saw from his opponent in Denver last week “wasn’t leadership, that’s salesmanship,” most of the damage had been done. According to Gallup (a research-based performance-management consulting company based in US) poll, Romney had scored a 52-point debate victory over Obama – the biggest since the polling giant began tracking debates 20 years ago. The previous largest margin was 42 points for Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Town Hall debate in which the latter famously looked at his watch and the former proved proficient in expressing compassion for voters. Well, we all know the final result! So, will this debate too go down as one of those that matter? Although it won’t be a game-changer like Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 or Bush-Gore in 2000, one thing is sure that it could mark the start of a likely comeback for Romney, particularly if he can keep up with Obama at this pace. For now, it’s one up for Romney.
Even Pew Research Center reported this “as the most dramatic shift in a national poll during the entire general election campaign”, with Romney’s fortunes improving in almost every respect. This certainly comes as a real shocker for Obama and his allies who, since April 2012, have coughed up $164 million on 363,000 ads, as against Romney and his allies who have spent a third of that, $57 million on 127,000 ads (according to an NBC News/Smart Media Group Delta analysis, more than $512 million has been spent till September 30, 2012 by both the parties in campaigning, more than the total amount spent on ads in the 2008 election).
This dramatic shift is one of several such instances in the history of modern politics when effective communication (“the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behaviour”) has changed its course. After all, it’s a process that determines what consequences a political message will have on both voters and competing political institutions. “Political communications has therefore always been central to the electoral and policymaking process but in the last decade certain important structural developments have fundamentally altered this process, particularly postwar trends in the mass media moving from the traditional world of newspapers, radio and television broadcasting towards the Internet,” states Pippa Norris, Faculty of Comparative Politics at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University in one of her research paper on Political Communications. In fact, sometimes how a candidate looks is more important than what he says, or a few right words are more effective than a long speech or rhetoric.