News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 29, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Not-so-casual observers

Rose-Hulman students’ study of presidential campaigners a good example for everyone

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — In the minds of many adults, the most upstanding generation of young people was, ironically, their own.

Yes, back then, a man’s word was his bond. (When was that, you ask? In the late ’60s and early ’70s, of course, when Richard Nixon was in the White House.) Americans were smart enough to dial a rotary telephone, instead of being baby-sat by a smart phone. And young people didn’t waste time Google-ing on the Internet. They found constructive ways to stay busy (like talking on CB radios and streaking). Kids today …

Seriously, folks who’ve passed their 30th birthday too often underestimate the youthful.

We all could take notes from the students in Professor Anneliese Watt’s presidential election rhetoric class at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. By Nov. 6 (Election Day), few Americans will have studied more closely the candidates seeking the nation’s highest office than those 14 teenagers and twentysomethings.

They analyze the candidates’ rhetoric — those grandiose, biting and boring words — used in debates, news coverage from multiple sources, attack ads and website postings. They examine how those comments are crafted and delivered to appeal to different groups of people. They conduct mock campaigns, complete with debates and reports on the issues. They paid close attention to the State of the Union address by President Obama, who not only offered a national status report, but also set an aggressive tone for his re-election bid.

On Tuesday morning in a campus classroom in Moench Hall, Watt and her students pored over NBC News footage from Monday night’s debate in Tampa, Fla., among the four remaining Republican candidates. They zeroed in on testy exchanges between the two GOP frontrunners — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

“Watch the body language,” Watt told the students.

They noted the subtle nuances. Notably, the moderator, NBC anchor Brian Williams, had earlier instructed the Florida audience to remain quiet following the candidates’ comments. That was a departure from the previous debate. In that one, Gingrich’s followers roared approval after he chastised moderator John King of CNN for opening the debate by asking Gingrich to respond to criticisms leveled by the speaker’s second ex-wife.

In the Tampa debate, Romney — fresh off a jarring loss to Gingrich in the South Carolina Primary — hammered away at Gingrich over the Georgian’s record in Congress and his consulting work for the bailed-out mortgage giant Freddie Mac. With no audible reaction from the crowd, viewers were left to focus on the comments and facial expressions.

“Gingrich’s body language was fantastic,” one student said. “He was sitting there while [Romney] was talking, like he was saying, ‘What are you talking about?’”

By contrast, another student noted the silence of the audience “made it easier to see if the candidates really believed what they were saying.” The “mob mentality” had been removed, said another. “If they become president, they’re not going to be in an environment where everyone is always cheering them on,” a classmate added.

The students do something else that few of us attempt — they walk in the shoes of the people on the campaign trail, the ones we love to criticize. Watt splits the students into three camps — conservatives, liberals and tea partiers, with each filling a role as a presidential or vice presidential candidate, campaign manager, or media member.

As with Romney, Gingrich and the actual candidates, student candidate Dylan Kessler had a moment in his mock debate lingering in his thoughts. It was a comment from a classmate in the role of a media member. “After the first debate, [the reporter] thought I was especially well-prepared,” said Kessler, serving as the liberal party’s presidential candidate. “And I was like, ‘Yes!’”

Watt’s students enjoy the diversion from their engineering studies, and the chance to critically think about the political rhetoric. “It’s nice to take a moment to just focus on the outside world,” said freshman Ian Fong.

Kessler, a sophomore, is 19 years old. Fong is 18. The 2012 primary and general election give both their first opportunity to vote for a presidential candidate. It’s an exciting time.

Fong plans to maintain that civic energy, long after Watt’s course concludes on Feb. 17. “Now that I’ve invested all this time in learning about all these candidates, I definitely intend to keep going,” he said.

The class has left a similar impression on past students. Watt taught the presidential election rhetoric course at Rose in the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, and hears from those alums occasionally. They tell her they’re “more involved and informed citizens in their lives,” Watt said, “and that’s cool to hear.”

Youth voting surged in 2008, when 51.1 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds went to the polls, which helped Obama defeat Republican John McCain. The turnout was even stronger for the under-30s with college experience, at 62 percent. As that election unfolded, Watt sensed a broader political diversification among the students in her presidential election rhetoric class and on the Rose campus. Though the overall intensity is not at a 2008 level, students in this year’s class are engaged and inquisitive. They’re thinking about the economy. The president as well as libertarian Republican Ron Paul continue to appeal to young, but it’s only January.

When asked if he has an inkling yet on who will win the presidency, Fong said, “I’ve learned in this class we should never really make a conclusion [too soon] because it’s always changing.” The vitality of the U.S. economy on Nov. 6 could be the deciding factor, Kessler added.

Whatever the outcome, when it comes to being informed voters, these young men and women have done their homework.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or