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The debates: Voters weigh candidates’ demeanor and ‘likability’

By John Stodder

Vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan watches as vice president Joe Biden speaks during the debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky, on Thursday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

After two of the four debates of the 2012 presidential season, what is most striking is how much of the response, as expressed in mainstream news coverage and social media, focuses on body language, demeanor, matters of etiquette, and whether a candidate was likable.

In the analysis after the vice-presidential debate last week, commentators on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, as well as legions of Twitter and Facebook users, took particular note of Vice President Biden’s behavior throughout the debate, with the words “smirking” and “rude” arising frequently.

“Smirking Joe Biden, uber-earnest Paul Ryan play to TV draw,” read a headline in the Baltimore Sun. The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney, writing on the Times’ election blog, wondered, “[S]ubstance aside, will Mr. Biden be scored for his style? Will his laughing, eye-rolling and interrupting be seen as too pushy, too aggressive, too disrespectful?”

In Politico’s story, “Pundits parse Joe Biden’s big grin,” Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s chief strategist in 2008, said. “[Biden’s] smiling, the laughing, the grinning, if you look at the recent history of debates – whether it was Al Gore sighing, President George Herbert Walker Bush looking at his watch – so many of these debates have come to be dominated by these personality quirks that manifest … themselves over the course of the debate as opposed to the substance of the answers in the debate.”

Indeed, Biden’s aggressiveness seemed to some commentators to have been designed to compensate for President Obama’s nearly opposite style in his first debate with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Oct. 3.

Andrew Sullivan, blogger for The Daily Beast and a strong Obama supporter, wrote after the first debate, “Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn’t there. He was entirely defensive.”

Obama described himself in a radio interview with Tom Joyner as having been “just too polite” in his encounter with Romney.

Daily Beast media columnist Howard Kurtz contrasted Romney’s and Obama’s performances in that debate: “What viewers at home saw was a poised and confident challenger and a long-winded incumbent giving discursive answers and never using his strongest ammunition. Presidential debates are political theater, and Obama did not play the role of a leading man.”

It was, in fact, a case of role-reversal. Heading into the Oct. 3 debate, a big issue for Romney was whether he was likable enough for voters.

As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote in August, describing a poll, “on the … measure of which candidate seems more friendly and likable, President Obama trounced Romney 61 percent to 27 percent among registered voters, with margins slightly larger in tossup states and among independents. Even 33 percent of Republicans found Obama more likable.”

Some of Romney’s conservative supporters asserted that likability didn’t matter, so Romney should not seek to boost his poll ratings in that area. Since the debate, however, an ABC/Washington Post poll saw Romney’s likability rise to new levels. Curiously, so did Obama’s.

The question of Rep. Ryan’s likability has not captivated political pundits to the same degree as it has about his running mate. However, John O’Sullivan, a contributor to the conservative National Review, wrote that, despite Biden’s “rudeness” during the vice-presidential debate, he won “on points.” Biden “appeared to be authoritative and Ryan slightly confusing,” owing to his rapid, nervous speaking style, which O’Sullivan described as “a forgettable stream of wonkery.”

The NBC Saturday Night Live parody of the debate lampooned Biden for his seemingly random outbursts of laughter and discourtesy toward Ryan, and Ryan for his consumption of large amounts of water. At one point, the actress playing moderator Martha Raddatz claimed, “America’s small children would like (Ryan) to stop looking into the lens” because “they find it upsetting.”

The focus on Obama’s passivity, Romney’s unlikability, Ryan’s nervousness or Biden’s condescension raises a question: Should the head of one branch of the U.S. government, in charge of the most powerful military in history and responsible for the safety of more than 300 million people, be selected on the basis of whether he or she is polite or rude, aggressive or passive, smirking, smiling or unable to make eye contact?

If a leader had the formula to ensure peace and prosperity, do voters care whether he or she has a pleasing personality or conducts himself or herself according to Emily Post’s etiquette?

Veteran political journalist John Dickerson, political director for CBS News and chief political correspondent for Slate, wrote a long series that ran just before the first debate about presidential qualifications, posing the question, “suppose the current presidential campaign were an extended job interview?” What qualities does a president actually need to do the job effectively?

Dickerson named four: political skill, management ability, persuasiveness and temperament. Leadership is actually just the sum of those skills, according to Dickerson, who did not mention qualities like intelligence, knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, or a well-honed political philosophy. The job, in his view, mostly requires personal skills and innate abilities. That is because a U.S. president does not act autonomously. He or she works through other people who must agree to follow his or her direction.

Thus, the importance of the vice-presidential debate – which polls suggest neither candidate won decisively – will probably derive not from what the candidates said, but from whether their behavior onstage conveyed to voters that they have the personal qualities to take on the massive, multi-faceted managerial challenges of the presidency.

John Stodder is the roving Web editor for The Dolan Co.

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