Rhetoric, Not Issues, Decides US Debates | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 30.09.2004
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Rhetoric, Not Issues, Decides US Debates

When US President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry go head-to-head in three debates, one German viewer said it will be the politicians' rhetorical abilities, not content, that decides the winner.


Who will win the battle of words?

Like the members of reality television hoping not to get voted off the show, charisma and rhetoric will be more important than the actual message the candidates try to bring across, according to Hans Vorländer, a political scientist and communications expert at the Technical University in Dresden.

"Both candidates refer to a shared repertoire of campaign rhetoric, to which belong a basic optimistic outlook, a promising spin on the current situation and most of all the embedding of big American values like freedom and advancement," Vorländer said. "Ultimately, the debates are not dominated by content but the candidates' rhetorical ability."

Irak Krieg im Fernsehen

How the candidates come across on TV will play a role in what voters think of them

In front of an audience of millions, many observers feel the competitors' performance in the three debates will be a key factor in swaying undecided voters before the Nov. 2 elections. The first debate, which takes place Thursday night, will cover foreign politics and security issues, including the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Influence undecided voters

With current US polls giving Bush an advantage of between six and eight points, the debates will be especially important for Kerry in his attempt to turn the tide. Polls show that up to a quarter of US voters can be influenced by the debates.

"Until now, Kerry, as opposed to the president, has not been successful in getting rid of his aloof, stiff image and getting closer to the public," Vorländer said. "In many respects the debates will decide the election, because that's where the candidates can win undecided voters."

Two proficient debaters

Although both campaigns are trying to lower the public's expectations for their candidate to reap the profits of being the underdog, both men have a reputation for their debating skills.

Fernsehduell George Bush und Al Gore

Bush showed voters his debating skills against Al Gore four years ago

Bush surprised campaign observers with in his performances against then Democratic candidate Al Gore four years ago, and some of Kerry's campaign debates from 1996 are regarded as modern classics.

Though the two men have different debating styles, there is some "civil-religious rhetoric" that connects them, according to Vorländer."The candidates will stress the motive of the USA as God's chosen land, as well as striving like missionaries to carry the American Dream to the world," he said. "The candidate who mixes America's favorite principles into his rhetoric best scores the most points."

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