Practical Advice from Communication Experts

Communication Currents, August 2011

With Labor Day approaching, we’re already seeing political rhetoric heating up in advance of the 2012 elections. How can we tell the difference between what’s significant and what’s not? We asked communication scholars to weigh in on the question of how the average voter can make sense of what they're seeing and hearing from those vying for the political spotlight. Here’s what they told us….

Voters should recognize tree house politics. Tree house politics invokes misogynist beliefs that femininity and public office do not mix. Like on the schoolyard, where boys shoo girls from the tree house by claiming it as their rightful territory, in political communication tree house politics uses misogyny to intimidate opponents. Recognize tree house politics when Arnold Schwarzenegger calls political opponents “girlie men,” as when John Edwards was ridiculed as “the Breck Girl of politics,” and President Bush taunted would-be attackers of US forces in Iraq to “bring ‘em on” weeks after declaring major combat operations over. Women play tree house politics too. Candidate Sharron Angle told majority leader Harry Reid to “man up” on Social Security; Sarah Palin opined Arizona governor Jan Brewer had “cojones” President Obama lacked on immigration. Tree house politics is dangerous because it inspires poor electoral choices, calamitous foreign and domestic policy, and degrades women.

Michelle Rodino-Colocino, Penn State University

Read and view across outlets, not just one version of coverage. Be an active consumer; compare the accounts and evaluate the sources of the information. There are so many options available, most with a point of view, and voters need to decide for themselves. It is easy to be distracted by sensational sound bites, attacks on opponents, and the physical appearance of the candidates. Pay attention to what a candidate actually says. Most important is whether a match exists between a candidate’s and voter’s worldview and stances on important issues. Non-partisan websites such as that fact check the claims made by candidate advertisements and speeches can also be very useful to voters. Talking with others about the candidates is productive when it exposes us to additional ideas and arguments, especially ones that challenge our own. It pushes us toward more considered opinions which are beneficial to making informed voting decisions.

Kimberly Meltzer, Georgetown University

As we enter the 2012 election season, candidates are already well into what political communication researchers refer to as the surfacing stage. During the early days of a campaign, candidates must strategically brand themselves, first to donors who will bankroll their campaigns, then to voters in the early primary and caucus states who will determine their voter viability. You can track the money on sites such as OpenSecrets and monitor the early tracking polls regarding public opinion and breaking stories on sites such as Politico or CNNPolitics. The direct source of information is the candidate websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter posts. A complete guide to the links of all major and minor candidates and parties can be found at Politics1. For students who want to contribute research to the field, the nonpartisan website provides a glimpse of the work being done in real time and invites student participation.

Rita Kirk, Southern Methodist University

As the campaign heats up, it becomes increasingly important—and difficult—to cut through the spin and find good information. Here are three helpful tips:

1. Get your news from many sources. News organizations vary in important ways, from editorial policies to political leanings. Relying on just one or two sources is sure to limit the range of perspectives you’re exposed to, which in turn limits your ability to weigh all sides of an issue.

2. Don’t rely solely on the news. News is important, but it’s not the only source of useful political information. Talk about politics with people you respect, and spend some time on the candidates’ websites familiarizing yourself with their positions on key issues.

3. Check the facts. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation circulating during campaign season. Rely on nonpartisan, expert observers (e.g., to alert you to claims that don’t square with reality.

Kevin Coe, University of Arizona

This summer, we served as group facilitators for a community conversation among Lincoln, Nebraska residents about potential budgetary cuts to city services and programs. Although one citizen delivered a dogmatic polemic on the uselessness of the entire process, most left the event feeling inspired by cooperative civic engagement. This experience demonstrated to us the potential of communication to transform a vitriolic political climate by promoting collaborative decision-making and prompted us to remind our fellow citizens that it is incumbent upon us to recognize that our political viewpoints are not the inherent property of a pre-formed, monadic individual. Rather, they are fluid and dynamic. They emerge through dialogue. We grow by listening to others and embracing the vulnerability that accompanies personal transformation. Thus, as the 2012 presidential campaign season approaches, we remember that, while polarizing rhetoric may make the headlines, it is collaborative engagement with others that makes a meaningful difference.

Joshua Ewalt and Rachel Stohr, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

I would like to encourage communication scholars to develop new lines of inquiry concerning the hyper-mediated political discourse that is of so little merit to the public. Merely identifying fallacious arguments, deception, disinformation and other forms of mystification, while important, is no longer enough to raise standards of public discourse or revive an informed citizenry. A more radical critique is warranted, say perhaps a critical pursuit of the form, content, functions and effects of what could be termed the rhetoric of vanity. Instead of being sullied, again, into the complicit role of cawing like crows on a fence, we should be developing a more devastating—less dismissive—critique of the hollowness of discourse masquerading as serious political communication, by focusing on its futility, not mere banality, and the egregious losses of speech and the preciousness of time itself. We need, therefore, to better understand language use when it is useless.

Gray Matthews, University of Memphis

The primary debates are very important because, first, they introduce the candidates to the primary voters. In some cases, the candidates are not well known as in the case of Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Bill Clinton in 1992. Second, for those candidates who are well known, it offers a chance for the voters to learn about the candidate's individual policy positions. Even for candidates like George H. W. Bush in 1988, the sitting vice president, voters needed to learn how he would fashion his own views apart from Ronald Reagan's presidential agenda. Each primary process ushers in a host of issues with unique particularities from the previous campaign. Thus, through the debates, the candidates are pushed to go on record by defining their political philosophy and platform. Finally, the debates can serve a democratization role by encouraging the candidates, the news media, and voters to engage in the pressing issues that face the nation, answering voter questions directly in certain cases. The election cycle often begins with the primary debates, which helps shape the remainder of the electoral process and ultimately leads to the election of a presidential incumbent or challenger by the voting public (and the electoral college).

Shawn J. Parry-Giles, University of Maryland

One of the most important pieces of advice I've given to presidential candidates whom I have advised including President Ford, candidates George H. W. Bush and Governor Pete Wilson, is that they have to find a way to be unique and authentic at the same time. For example, when in his 1988 acceptance of the Republican nomination, Bush called for "a kinder, gentler America" it rang true because it matched his persona. Realizing that television is terribly revealing and that being cool is much wiser than being hot, President Ford was able to win his first debate with Governor Carter with a low key analysis of specific issues. In the recent Republican debate, it was surprising how many of the candidates failed to realize how revealing television can be when candidates attempt to be someone they are not. Just take the two from Minnesota: former Governor Tim Palenty came off as artificial because he danced away from his earlier caricature of former Governor Romney's health program as "Obamney care." However, Congresswoman Michele Bachman seemed authentic throughout the debate by giving measured and thoughtful answers to the questions asked, often surprising her critics. For example, she said she would leave the issue of same-sex marriage to the states. Even liberal commentators like Chris Matthews praised her performance, particularly noting her authenticity.

Craig Smith, California State University-Long Beach

In the absence of medical surprises, the Democratic candidates will be President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. The only suspense is who will be and who should be the Republican nominees. The primary season creates innumerable false rhetorical positives, candidates who excite a lot of people but who are not well-known, and Republican principals follow Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Hence, vetting time is critical; it is why the choice in 2008 of Sarah Palin as opposed to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for the Republican Vice President created initial excitement but ultimately lost the race for the Republicans. Let’s get to the chase. Of the candidates in the first major Republican primary debate, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann (important as a Tea Party favorite, so no one will risk alienating her), Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, only Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have a shot and should have a shot. The rest are interesting, but are and will remain secondary players. Milquetoasty rhetoric specialist former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman will not be the nominee. New candidates have it rough finding money as time goes on, but Texan Governor Rick Perry could make a run with his conservative economic success in Texas.

Richard Vatz, Towson University

Voters should first scrutinize the social marketing strategy tailored to promote a candidate’s public policy, social agenda and political values – followed by the advertising strategy that builds his/her political brand identity and equity – and then the public relations strategy that establishes trustworthiness and likability. Conservative voters should be wary of those candidates who sound too vitriolic, ethnocentric, righteous and /or moralistic. Liberal voters should resist those candidates who are prone to pander to race/class issues and big society demagoguery. Independent voters should avoid those candidates who tend to be more ideologically driven. Inexperienced first-time or irregular voters could consider supporting those candidates whose policies benefit middle-class Americans. Another good rule of thumb for evaluating presidential candidates and their political rhetoric is “substance over style” or “qualification over image.” Following President Eisenhower’s advice, voters should also consider avoiding those candidates who overtly tout the benefits of a military industrial complex.

Carolyn A. Lin, University of Connecticut

Americans are about to be treated to heaping helpings of heated rhetoric during the primaries. Here’s some advice for those seeking to look behind the curtain. First of all, disregard a large percentage of what you hear during the Republican primary. Remember, this is all about distinguishing one opponent from another. They want to point out other candidates’ missteps, inadequacies, and problems. However, they can’t go too far, because the nominee will need the support of the other candidates’ voters. So, expect some nasty comments, accompanied by the requisite calls for party unity and adhering to Republican principles. Second, remember that the media and politics need each other. Expect the media to pounce on controversial statements. Candidates love the free coverage, and the networks need the topics for cable media pundits. Marginal candidates receive less coverage, so they have to come up with hard-hitting comments to stay in the media game. Meanwhile, Democrats will be waiting and watching, saving it up for the general election and working to shore up the base support.

Melissa M. Smith, Mississippi University for Women

Each time I teach, what I most hope for is that students leave with an improved capacity to see and tolerate complexity, in multiple domains. Election outcomes often pivot on a familiar set of hot-button topics – jobs! security! abortion! gay marriage! – any one of which could sustain prolonged productive discussion. But if the dominance of televisual media has elevated the sound byte in general, how much more so has politics skewed towards brief, simplistic statements? As individual voters, we can’t exactly change the sort of media coverage that encourages the readily digestible, but neither do we need to surrender to a reductionist politics. Don’t just vote left or right, Democrat or Republican; support the candidates who don’t shy away from complexity. Slogans are easy; good government benefits from a willingness to engage with issues in an intellectually honest and expansive manner.
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