Wednesday's Presidential Debate: Words and Style

Like many of us, I watched last night's first debate of the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but I was paying particular attention not to content but to style, semantic choices, and the use of those tricky crutch words.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Like many of us, I watched last night's first debate of the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but I was paying particular attention not to content but to style, linguistic choices, and the use of those tricky crutch words that had, depending on how you look at it, either felled or lifted Joe Biden into our semantical hearts in September. Somewhat unfortunately (though not unexpectedly) neither Romney nor Obama used a crutch word the way Biden did with literally at his DNC speech. A point to be made with regard to that: I'd assumed more crutch words might pop out during a live debate, as opposed to with a pre-scripted, if possibly ad-libbed, speech. But actually, perhaps some of those words we like to notice as overused tend to be inherent to our more prepared-speech styles, used in those cases to emphasize or as hyperbole. Maybe in a debate focused on a question-and-answer format, those words were largely eradicated ... or perhaps Obama and Romney just don't use them the way Biden does. Some other areas and how they measured up:

Sartorial Selections
Both of our candidates wore dark suits and crisp white shirts—nothing unusual there. Romney's flag pin (both candidates wore them on their left lapels) was noted to be slightly bigger. Obama's patterned blue tie was vibrating on my TV set, while Romney's red, striped one pretty much stayed where it was supposed to, but, in fairness, others said that Romney's tie was a bigger issue than Obama's from their vantage points. Both looked reasonably presidential, even, I dare say, coordinated.

Crutch Words
Obama has a big problem, still, with the uhs, or what's been called his "intellectual stammer"—he's peppering his sentences with the word, goes the logic, to give himself time to think and choose his other words more carefully. He begins a lot of his sentences with "Well, uh." He used the uh so many times in the first minute of talking that I quickly gave up any hopes of counting them throughout the debate—that would have been insane-making. Suffice it to say, this is his crutch sound. Another word to note that he used: "double down," which has been talked about previously as the political catch phrase of the season. And a friend points out that Obama said "and" a lot. I didn't notice for all the uhs.

Romney, on the other hand, doesn't display one crutch word or another with any real frequency. He did exhibit the lip-smacking he's known for, and also said "Um" a few times, but overall, Romney is a pretty smooth, and also fast (people have pointed out that he has a greater word-per-minute rate than the average talker) speaker. His one crutch word that's not a crutch, exactly, but maybe it is, was, I think, love (or, like)—he said, among other things, "I like coal," "I like PBS," "I love Big Bird," "I love green energy," "I love great schools," and that Democrats and Americans both "love" America. This is one of those word choices, like honestly, that in repeat use starts to make a person wonder if it actually belies its purported meaning, particularly when followed with but. (I love it...but I'm going to have to _____.) Other Romney words, not unexpectedly, were about corporations and small businesses, and both of our candidates spoke a lot about the economy and healthcare.

Both Romney and Obama did a bit of the word-repeat, as in, "I-I," or "the-the," but neither did it excessively—sometimes that's a crutch, sometimes it may be for emphasis, sometimes perhaps it's both.

Folksiness and Conversational Appeal
Obama in speech has a tendency to drop his gs—"you're lookin'" instead of "you're looking," and to make I want into, say, I wanna. For example, in paraphrase: "Look. My philosophy has been makin' middle class families stronger. Occasionally ya gotta say no to folks in your party and the other party."

This seems to support the theory that more "folksy" or warm speakers are preferred—think Bill Clinton. We want folks we can relate to, who don't sound like robots, who seem like real people, you know, humans.

Posture and Facial Expressions
Obama looked down a lot, which had the overall effect of making him seem disinterested and a bit bored. Occasionally, he managed a faint smile, generally in response to Romney's aggressive tactics to interrupt or dominate the conversation. Rarer still was the huge Obama grin, which does rather light up the room and at least gave us some respite from the bored/head-down maneuver. If I were Obama's debate coach I'd tell him to LOOK UP and to smile more, but carefully, in the right moments. But, come on, eye contact with the audience—and the majority of the audience is on the other side of that TV. Romney tended to look over to the side, with that smug/patient (possibly smarmy) expression that seems to cover up a deep impatience. This is the look your dad gives you when he's waiting for you to finish explaining why you were late so he can just go ahead and ground you. Romney also appears to blink more frequently.

Hand Gestures
Obama is a slighter man than Romney, and his hand gestures are less expansive and wide, though I don't know if there's any correlation there. Romney often presses his hands to his heart, a gesture you could interpret as intended to show earnestness. Obama tends to keep his hands low, to clasp them together, and to use them together, though both men also imploy the single-hand gesture at times.

Overall Smoothness and Style
Romney was just smoother overall, and I think his aggressive tactics will be seen as "presidential" mostly, rather than rude, though I'm not sure I agree with that. It's true that Obama (probably) had to take a back-seat on aggression and act like he's already president, because he is. Not sure if that more laid-back demeanor will hurt him ultimately; it appears to have in this debate. (Toward the end, he finally did give a little guff to moderator Jim Lehrer, telling him "I had five seconds before you interrupted me.") But throughout Obama also seemed to lack a certain energy and verve—people are saying he seemed tired—with occasional bursts where it came back, for example, with his big smile and in his final two minutes of talking.

A word-aside: Merriam-Webster's @PeterSokolowski tweeted the most looked up debate words on the site. At 10 p.m. they were bipartisan, socialism, spar, argue, wonk, attrition, repeal, partisan, arbitrary, democracy, entitlement, eloquent. Following the debates, people were searching for socialism, extrapolate, bipartisan, segue, partisan, wonk, rhetoric, eloquent, democracy, smarmy, moderator, debate.

Some media organizations and pundits are declaring Romney the clear winner in round one, and I'll agree that in terms of lack of verbal clutter and smoothness of style he did do a bit better than Obama. But again, that's without an analysis of any of the actual content of what he said. There's more to come, obviously.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.