News Release: Politics

Sep. 27,  2008

Presidential Debate Analysis Finds Obama, McCain Strong

Two of Emory University's foremost debate experts say in the first presidential debate Sept. 26, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain both played well to their strengths and kept negatives at a minimum, with Obama taking a slight edge on McCain.

"From a political debate perspective, they both did what they needed to do. They reinforced the positive image and expectations people have of them and neither one made any blunders that would have reinforced any negatives. That's why many people see it as an even outcome," says Bill Newnam, associate director of forensics and debate coach for the Barkley Forum at Emory.

"Obama came across as competent and presidential, and that he can show good judgment while not appearing elitist. McCain came across as well-informed about the world and didn’t make any brash or unexpected statements," Newnam says.

And the Winner Is?

"Neither one probably moved people from one camp to the other, although Obama may have moved people to him that were unsure about him; he looked less risky," Newnam says, much like President Reagan did after his debates with President Carter. "We're going into an election that is really about change, and Obama – by appearing wise and presidential – reinforced that it's safe to make that change with him."

James Roland, director of Community Debate Programs and a debate coach for Emory's Barkley Forum, also says both candidates spent the debate highlighting their strengths, with Obama demonstrating his good judgment and McCain highlighting his experience and knowledge.

"There was the expectation that McCain would blow Obama out of the water on foreign policy, but Obama didn't sink under the pressure and held his own," which gave Obama the edge to win the debate, Roland says. Obama also benefited by having much of the debate center on the economy.

Body Language Also Part of the Message

One factor that will be interesting to watch in the coming debates is the use of body language and particular word choices, and how the electorate perceives them, says Roland. "You want a debate to be all about the content, but seemingly little things like body language and choice of salutation can really make a difference in how candidates are perceived.

"For example, Obama referred to Sen. McCain as John a few times and also addressed him directly, which shows that Obama considers McCain a colleague and an equal, while Sen. McCain adhered to formal debate speech, always using "Sen. Obama" in addressing him and not speaking at him directly. I think this was a deliberate choice, since McCain didn't want to be perceived as talking down to Obama," Roland says.

Newnam, in addition to his work at Emory, is administrative director of the National Debate Project Debate Center at Georgia State University, which serves hundreds of students and teachers each year. He also serves as a regional and national media commentator on political debates. 404-727-6189,

Roland is a former nationally ranked debater and has been coaching and directing community programs at Emory since 2000. As director of programs for the National Debate Project, Roland is one of the nation's foremost experts on the role of debate in urban education. 404-727-6189,


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