News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 14, 2012

ISU prof offers ‘up close’ view of debates

Mary Kahl has been attending presidential debates since 1988

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney square off during a town hall debate at Hofstra University on Tuesday, Indiana State University professor Mary Kahl will be close to the action.

Kahl, chairwoman of ISU’s department of communication, will lecture to a group of 300 to 400 people who watch the debate by closed-circuit television in an auditorium at Hofstra. It’s a public venue open to those who don’t have tickets to the actual town hall event.

Prior to the debate, she will talk to the audience in the auditorium about how to watch a debate.

Then, after the town hall is over, she will conduct a focus group with about 25 people, and results will be provided to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Watching presidential politics up close “is wonderful,” she said last week. “It’s part research, part entertainment and always exciting.”

Kahl, an expert in political communication, has conducted focus groups for DebateWatch during previous election campaigns. DebateWatch is a voter outreach program of the CPD.

She was at Hofstra University four years ago when Obama debated John McCain, and she ran a focus group involving Hofstra students who were part of the actual debate audience.

For Tuesday’s event, she was invited by Hofstra University, located in Long Island, New York.

Assessing the first presidential debate that occurred Oct. 3, she said, “There is no doubt in my mind that Romney was a superior debater last time … Obama was not the feisty, prepared debater he appeared to be four years ago.”  

While she advises people who watch debates not to look for “winners or losers” — but instead, to listen for who best answers questions — most people who watched agreed Romney “won” the last debate, she said.

“My prediction is that this next format at Hofstra will be kinder to Obama. He will doubtless have to change his style and approach, but I think the audience-oriented town hall format at the Hofstra debate will be more amenable to Obama’s skills,” Kahl said. “He’ll be able to connect with the audience members, I’m predicting, better than Gov. Romney will.”

The audience will consist of students and undecided voters chosen by the Gallup organization, and they will be able to pose questions to Obama and Romney. CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate.

“Particularly with a town hall debate, both candidates will be trying to reach out to people in the immediate audience,” said Kahl, who began her new duties at ISU in August. “It’s a less sterile environment because there are real people and real faces, not a darkened theater audience.”

In the town hall format, there is a much greater chance for people to connect directly with the candidates, she said.

Kahl said she will be interested to see if the two candidates show more respect to Crowley than they showed Jim Lehrer, who moderated the last debate. “I was frankly appalled by the lack of respect accorded Lehrer, particularly on the part of Gov. Romney,” she said. Toward the end, Obama also “was not very well behaved.”

The Oct. 3 debate also was characterized by “a marked difference in styles” that she hasn’t typically seen in the many presidential debates she has followed.

 Romney came prepared to speak to President Obama, while Obama came prepared to speak to Jim Lehrer and the televised audience, Kahl said. Romney went on the attack and directed his comments directly at Obama.

The president challenged Romney’s comments, but did not speak to him directly; he presented those challenges to the audience that was present and the televised audience.

“I have never seen one candidate directly challenge another to the extent I did in this [Oct. 3] debate,” Kahl said. “As I read Obama’s body language, he wasn’t prepared for the direct confrontation that Gov. Romney gave him.”

She anticipates Obama’s response will be much different for the third debate Oct. 22, which again will use a single moderator format and not a town hall format.

Audiences prefer a town hall format, she noted, although research indicates people learn more when a single moderator format is used.

She also noted that those who have already made up their minds about who they will vote for are generally not swayed by the presidential debates. “The debates tend to reaffirm their preexisting attitudes,” she said.

“Where presidential debates play the greatest role is with undecided voters,” she said.

While an estimated 67.2 million people watched the Oct. 3 presidential debate, she suggests it could be higher Tuesday because people like town hall formats more and also because of “the way the first debate went.”

When advising people about how to watch a debate, she tells them:

n Don’t look for a winner and loser. Look for who best answers questions.

n Look for clear, articulation of policy and specifics.

Kahl has been attending presidential debates — at least one every four years — since 1988. Eight years ago, she provided commentary for NPR when George Bush and John Kerry debated.

Four years ago, she spoke live on BBC the morning after a debate between Obama and McCain.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or