A presidential campaign offers the perfect opportunity to better understand how verbal persuasion works in action. The party conventions, political debates and various campaign speeches are exercises in rhetoric. The candidates and their supporters will try to persuade you of the wisdom of their positions; you may engage in a little political debating of your own with friends and family. If you know how rhetoric works, you will be better positioned to evaluate the political campaigning that you hear, and to make some successful arguments yourself.
In the coming weeks, we will analyze key moments in the presidential campaigns to illustrate how effective verbal persuasion operates.
On the scorecard below, we’ve listed the most important challenges facing the candidates (and their speechwriters) as we head into the conventions. We also list their greatest strengths. These are the things to watch for as you assess the speeches in the coming months.
Poor economy. Obama needs to be able to explain — succinctly, so that people will stay tuned in for the whole message — why the economy is in the state that it is in, and how his policies have made things better, not worse. You are likely to hear attacks about the economy that conflate correlation (the economy is bad and Obama is president) with causation (the economy is bad because Obama is president). Even though it is a logical fallacy to assume that because there is a correlation, you have proved causation, it can still sound quite persuasive. Obama must prove that his policies were not the cause of the problem, that his policies have made things better, and that Romney’s policies would make things worse.
Unpopularity of health care law. Many people dislike “Obamacare” without knowing much about what the law entails, or without even knowing whether it has gone into effect yet (most of it hasn’t). Obama needs to explain the law better, including why he believes it will help the economy in the long run. He also needs to explain why it isn’t unwarranted government interference in the private lives of citizens.
Perceived as aloof and arrogant. The president has been criticized for coming from a rarified world of academia, exhibiting disdain for people who “cling to guns or religion.” We are less likely to trust people whom we think are looking down on us. He should avoid phrasing things — as he occasionally does — in terms of “I” or “my” (“my administration” “my secretary of state”), and should tap into that “Yes, We Can” energy that connected him to younger voters and grassroots supporters in 2008.
Coddles freeloaders; infatuated with big government. Obama needs to explain why his policies make the country better and are (in the words of Tony Blair) a “hand-up, not a handout.” He needs to articulate a vision of government that does not sound like a perpetuation of bureaucracy or of an intelligentsia making decisions for people because they cannot be trusted to make the right decisions for themselves.
Keeps cool. Obama does not lose his temper easily. A balanced, even-keel approach is generally more persuasive than a more extreme tone.
Clear contrast with Romney/Republican platform. While Obama does face some challenges in in explaining his policies, he should be able easily to distinguish his position from the Romney/Republican platform. This will help him persuade voters who agree with his vision about the function of government.
Excellent public speaker. Obama at his best can soar. You can see nervousness about this in Republican quips about how they are focused on policies, not great speeches. Obama’s base is eager for him to reignite and inspire them. Put in trial lawyer terms (since he is a lawyer), while Obama certainly needs to make his case, he also needs to deliver a powerful closing argument.
The plastic robot. Romney has difficulty sounding like a regular guy, and his attempts to sound more conversational often backfire (such as his comment that in Michigan, “the trees are the right height” or his joke that “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate”). Effective rhetoric requires that you connect with your audience on an emotional level — if they like you, they are more likely to believe you. Romney’s wife and sons, and his running-mate, are more easily able to connect with a crowd, so he could rely on them more heavily to make up this shortcoming. His scriptwriters might also write him some off-the-cuff-sounding quips so that he is not tempted to ad-lib them himself.
The unconnected patrician. Romney is an extremely wealthy man. That success story could be a positive in his favor, but not if it makes him sound disconnected from his audience (e.g. his remarks that his wife drives a “couple of Cadillacs,” and that he knows about NASCAR because his friends own NASCAR teams). Again, this is a problem of emotional connection — we are more likely to believe a speaker can identify with our problems if he sounds like one of us.
The opportunistic flip-flopper. He has changed positions about things like the wisdom of universal health coverage, abortion, gun control and so on. Aristotle wrote that in order to be persuasive, a speaker must exhibit ethos, or credibility of character. Romney must figure out how to argue that his shifts in position do not demonstrate a weakness of character or beliefs.
The puppet of the zanies. The Tea Party movement encompasses some extreme positions that go further than many Americans, including many Republicans, are willing to go. Romney is faced with the challenge of keeping the votes of his tea party supporters without seeming to be co-opted by them. Extreme positions can be dangerous, because you are less likely to persuade middle-of-the-road voters.
The weak economy. For the reasons we have spelled out above, showing that Obama was the president during rough economic times does not prove that he caused those rough economic times. But that correlation will persuade some. Focusing on the economy forces Obama into a defensive posture, while Romney can make claims about how his policies would fare that could be hard to negate, because hypothetical futures are hard to prove.
Likeable. Romney has had trouble in the polls with likeability, but he is warmer when he is in the company of his wife, Ann. Audiences respond to people they like (witness the Kerry/Bush election).
Solid debater. Romney generally does well during political debates. Expect to see some dramatic exchanges between him and the President.
Presidential credibility. Romney possesses the credibility of someone who has made tough decisions in business and as a governor. He appears confident in his own capabilities as a leader, which makes listeners feel more confident as well. Projecting confidence can take you far in verbal persuasion.
Stay tuned to see how the candidates fare…