The Dim-Post

October 17, 2008

The psychology of debate

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 3:08 pm
Tags: , ,

Atlantic contributor James Fallows has some comments on the US presidential debates – they also seem relevant to the recent showdown between Helen Clark and John Key:

Here’s why the third debate, and all three debates, helped Obama so much more than McCain.

In general-election debates, it’s a losing strategy to “rally the base.” That’s what your own campaign events, and your fund-raisers, and your targeted ads, and your running mate are for. Especially by the time of the second and third debates, the job is to “rally the center.” That’s where most of remaining persuadable and undecided voters are.

Everything about Barack Obama’s approach to this debate, and all debates, was consistent with this reality. Almost nothing about John McCain’s approach was:

Neither Clark nor Key made McCain’s mistake – the person who came closest was Clark with her absurd and offensive comment about Key being used to shouting people down at home. Both candidates ran very defensive strategies in which they positioned themselves to look calm, strong and leaderlike; Key effortlessly exceeded the expectations set for him. Clark didn’t hurt herself in the debate but she didn’t help herself much either, and she did damage her image with her foolish (but totally characteristic) attacks on John Key and Mark Sainsbury the next day.

Clark and her supporters seem to genuinely believe in their cartoon depiction of John Key as some sort of malign, demonic super-rich psychopath, just as the US Republican Party imagines Barack Obama as being a deranged radical Islamic terrorist. But when people encounter Obama on TV they see a calm, articulate, slightly pompous and sometimes tedious former law professor; when we see Key we see a genial, occasionaly bewildered and safely anodyne Kiwi boy made good. Their political enemies are trying to sell us something we simply cannot believe in.


  1. At the risk of sounding partisan, the more I think about your description of Key’s depiction as ‘some sort of malign, demonic super-rich psychopath’ the more applicable it seems to Helen Clark. Indeed she seems incredibly uncomfortable with the questions about wealth. She has had ten years on a pretty good wicket and barely has to dip her hands into her own pockets. Playing the matter down by disingenuously suggesting she has few indulgences and spends her time tooling around her modest Mt Eden villa. She also has the Prime Ministerial manse in the capital and her husband is in the tax bracket that makes him ‘rich’ many times over by New Zealand’s tax classification. As the husband of the PM I’m sure he enjoys more than a few perks on Helen’s ticket. It would be interesting to see an audit of The Clark/Davis fortunes. I am sure many would be shocked at how super-rich (certainly by comparison to the folk she claims to represent).

    As for malignancy or psychopathic tendenciesā€¦ Clark’s comments the following day went some way to confirm her uberstatus as a malign nut.

    The PM reminds me of an old story about Walt Disney, possibly apocryphal, atrybuted to an animator/employee – ‘Walt was cryogenically frozen to make him a warmer human being’. When she passes, not something I wish for in the near future, perhaps we should build a big Fisher and Paykel designed cryogenic fridge on the site of the Michael Savage memorial at Bastion Point?

    Comment by David MacGregor — October 18, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  2. I suspect Clark and Davis are like a lot of the academics I work with and simply aren’t that interested in accumulating wealth and material things. (Davis could easily afford to buy a BMW but instead he walks to work every morning and catches the bus home.) I imagine they give most of their money away to charity.

    Comment by danylmc — October 19, 2008 @ 11:25 am

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