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Presidential rhetoric expert says 2016 debates are 'wild card' in how voters will respond

Monday, September 19, 2016

LAWRENCE — This fall’s presidential debates may seem more like sporting events than politics, according to a University of Kansas professor and expert on presidential rhetoric.

“So much of our coverage looks at how they function as the boxing match of the campaign,” said Robin Rowland, professor of communication studies. “Over the last 30 years there has been a shift away from candidates citing evidence and making arguments about public policy to a more theatrical style with a diminished focus on the real issues facing the country. This shift has made the debates more interesting for the public and commentators, but reduced the amount of useful information they provide on the candidates.”

The 2016 candidates’ first debate, Sept. 26 at Hofstra University, will be televised, as has every presidential debate in election cycles since 1976. Rowland has written about presidential debates and the rhetoric of presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. He is available to discuss issues surrounding the presidential debates.

Q: As a scholar of presidential rhetoric, what will you be looking for in this first debate?

Rowland: It’s unlikely Trump will follow the normal style of presidential debates. His core supporters like his authenticity, which is operationally defined as he’ll say anything. He’ll say others are being politically correct.

For Clinton, it’s unlikely she’s going to have a problem making a major mistake on the issues. Rather, is she going to come across as energetic and authentic, and does she have a plan when Trump is going to call her corrupt? I think she wants to remain presidential, and it is hard.

If they’re not practicing a great deal, they’re foolish.

Q: How much sway do debates hold with voters on Election Day?

Rowland: As scholars, our best thinking is that what matters in a debate is if a candidate makes a major mistake, or if a challenger who is perceived as not necessarily having the experience to be president demonstrates knowledge of the issues.

Until 2012 it had always been either that someone made a major gaffe — Al Gore sighing in 2000 — or at least a substantive mistake, like Ford saying Eastern Europe would never be under Soviet domination under his presidency.

In 2012 what was so shocking is that Romney ran on positions he had not taken, and when Obama pointed it out, people thought he was too much of a wonk.

As for 2016, it’s a wild card.

Q: How have presidential debates changed, particularly since they’ve been televised?

Rowland: The less the moderator is involved, the better, as is having a format that requires the candidates to respond to each other. In 1980 between Reagan and Carter, on every issue you had an opening and two rebuttals. Reagan used that to his advantage.

Does the public have the attention span for that right now, if we think 90-second answers are dull? The issues just demand more explanation. This is not a reality TV show — this is the most important job in the world.

What I drew from the contrast between Reagan and Carter in 1980 to Romney and Obama 2012 is that we face a question: Do we want this to be good television, or do we want this to tell us useful information about who we want to be president?

To arrange an interview with Rowland, contact Erinn Barcomb-Peterson at 785-864-8858 or ebp@ku.edu.