Eyes, Weeds and Big Bird: What Will Happen Thursday?

The frenzy of commentary following last week’s presidential debate shape up to three broad takeaways, all with framing implications.

Eyes:  Everyone noticed stylistic differences between the two candidates. Governor Romney seemed high energy and was looking at the camera, the President, and the moderator most of the time. President Obama spent more time looking down, something picked up by the writers for Saturday Night Live. (You knew it would happen.) These differences left many with the impression that Romney was more engaged, interested and confident than the President. We were all reminded that it’s not just the message – the messenger (and presentation style) matters too.

Weeds:  Despite a few notable attempts at memorable terms (trickle down government, economy tax), many commentators noted that both of the debaters went deep into the weeds about the issues – particularly when it came to taxes and deficit reduction. Frankly, there were a lot of numbers, and that got hard to follow, not to mention ~ boring. (President Clinton does it much better.)  President Obama spent a lot of time focused on arguing the facts about Romney’s proposals without changing the frame. Facts vs. facts in your opponent’s frame will not change minds. Moreover, the debate focus on taxes reinforced a favorite conservative theme: cutting taxes is the best solution to budget problems. Maintaining this focus meant Obama missed a couple open invitations to shift the conversation to jobs.

Big Bird: A substantive takeaway – both serious and humorous – was Governor Romney’s threat to kill Big Bird (and to fire Jim Lehrer sitting right in front of him!) by eliminating funding for public television.

But Romney wasn’t really attacking Big Bird. He was making a point about his view on the role of government. When proponents of small government attack public funding of arts + culture, they do so understanding that they are tapping into a widely held default belief that the arts are a private matter and a low public priority.  (For more on this, see our research and recommendations for advocates of broad public support of the arts.) We’re not sure why Romney chose such a popular example though. And we’re watching to see how that turns out!

Big Bird was the enduring meme of the debate (as we kinda predicted!) and launched a flurry of funny commentary. We added one of our favs above.

The Twitterverse identified all these points real-time during the debate, along with insights about social math, sticky terms, and framing decisions.

What will happen tomorrow?  Join us on Twitter as we watch and learn together.





Debate Season: The Olympics of Framing

We’re excited about debate season! Yes, we’re political and policy communication nerds — and this is like the Olympics of framing.

Kennedy and Nixon Debate 1960


This year’s debates are sure to offer some great lessons in contrasting frames.  In fact, the winner of any debate is likely to be the candidate who more compellingly frames the fundamental issues.


For example, look at the competing visions of the American Experience that each candidate outlined in his convention speech:

Individual Freedom, Individual Success 

That very optimism is uniquely American.


It is what brought us to America. We are a nation of immigrants. We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better.


They came not just in pursuit of the riches of this world but for the richness of this life. Freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom to speak their mind.


Freedom to build a life. And yes, freedom to build a business. With their own hands.


This is the essence of the American experience.  

Mitt Romney    


Shared Responsibility, Shared Success 

But we also believe in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.


We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.


We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes, and so is the entire economy…


As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

Barack Obama


The debate frame clashes are likely to be even more obvious since the candidates will be seeking to highlight contrasts.

During the October 3rd debate we’ll be watching for framing moments — watch this space for some thoughts about the most interesting ones. (Want to share your thoughts? We’ll be on Twitter and Facebook for the debate!)
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