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Image: Barack Obama and John McCain debate
Pool  /  Reuters
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, left, and Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain take part in the first of three presidential debate on Sept. 26.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/7/2008 3:16:12 PM ET 2008-10-07T19:16:12

Somewhere along the line, from the great 1858 Senate debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas until now, style seems to have slowly supplanted issue-specific substance as the primary focus of exchanges between political candidates.

David S. Birdsell, dean of the school of public affairs at Baruch College in New York, compared current political discourse to a circus, with viewers spinning their heads from one bright shiny distraction to the next. “This is P.T. Barnum comes to presidential debating," said Birdsell.

In the wake of the first debate between presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama, most of the punditry has been fixated not on point-by-point analysis of their respective economic policies but rather demeanor, attitude, appearance, facial expressions and Obama’s tendency to credit McCain versus McCain’s refusal to look at Obama.

There is an entire science of non-verbal debating that arguably is more important than what the contestants actually say.

“Here’s why presentation matters: Because we’re human, and we like to watch people interact with other people,” said Allan Louden, a communications professor at Wake Forest University. “We drop back into things like politeness and respect and who is top dog, the relational things, how they treat each other.

“Does this matter? Yes, because we judge these things by our own personal life experience and we judge by how they treat each other. It provides an insight into character.”

The superficial has substance
In a sense, when it comes to debating, the superficial has substance. After months of personal appearances and press conferences, candidates like McCain and Obama, who are vying for the nation’s highest office, have been prepped and polished from their perfectly manicured follicles to their shiny wing tips. They have been schooled by their campaign managers — Steve Schmidt for McCain, David Axelrod for Obama — in areas such as posture, voice, hand gestures, facial reactions and, of course, the all-important lapel pin.

The debates may be a forum for the pointed exchange of ideas, but it’s the overall presentation that resonates with audiences and voters.

Video: VP debates add zest, and sometimes humor Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, has engaged in his share of debates over the years, including in 2002 when he ran for governor of Massachusetts. He said the overall impression left with voters from the standpoint of style is usually more profound than policy specifics.

“People don’t just watch or listen to debates. They feel them,” Reich said. “And that gut feeling is critical. Often the most important question is not who won the debate on logic or argument, but who got the greater respect, admiration, trust and comfort from the public.”

Coming away with a warm feeling after a debate can count for a lot. Birdsell cited the example of Dick Cheney when he engaged in vice presidential debates in 2000 (against Joe Lieberman) and 2004 (against John Edwards).

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“Style and substance cannot be radically differentiated from each other,” Birdsell explained. “Dick Cheney used to speak in ‘Father Knows Best’ tones, warm and fatherly, but he would say some fairly outrageous things.”

Not only does everyone have a different sense of style, but style is more important to some than others.

Non-verbal cues carry weight
“I had an interesting experience after the debate,” said Tom Hollihan, professor of communications at the University of Southern California. “I was on a local radio show after the (first) McCain-Obama debate, and the other person discussing it was Sen. Barbara Boxer. I said that I wasn’t so disturbed by the differences in style.

“But Sen. Boxer said, ‘Well, I sure noticed it.’ She said, ‘I have argued with John McCain, and he has to make an adversary an enemy in order to argue with him. I can tell you that other women have noticed it.’ It was very interesting for me to see that she saw that unique characteristic of who he is.”

Just about any visual component of a debate contributes to the number of style points amassed by the respective candidates.

“Non-verbal cues are given more weight than verbal cues,” Hollihan said. “People tend to believe non-verbal cues because they feel that verbal cues can be more easily manipulated.”

When it comes to non-verbal cues, the granddaddy of all debate examples is the 1960 clash between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

“The lessons of 1960 were painfully learned,” Hollihan said. “Nixon didn’t wear makeup because Kennedy wasn’t going to. But Kennedy prepared by spending time in Florida and getting tanned while playing golf. Nixon was sick with the flu and was just back from Alaska.”

Such serious stylistic missteps, while they do occur, don’t happen nearly as much anymore. “These people are very good at these things,” Hollihan said. “Nowadays they’re concerned about looks, about what they’re wearing, about how to project a sense of confidence.

“They even argue beforehand about the height of the podium, whether the candidates are sitting or standing. None of this is left to chance anymore.”

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