University of Pittsburgh
September 24, 2008

Will Presidential Debates Follow a Prepared Script or Will the Issues of the Day Inspire Spontaneity?

Pitt professors available to answer these questions and provide analysis of the candidates' performance in Friday's scheduled debate
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH-Should the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama occur Friday night, Sept. 26, the format will be candidates at a podium answering identical questions; future debate formats will include town hall and conference-like settings. The debate formats as well as unfolding news events may determine the degree of spontaneity of the candidates' responses, say Pitt faculty experts.

Barbara Warnick, professor of communication and chair of Pitt's Department of Communication, said that in the initial debate, which centers on foreign policy, the candidates may prefer a more predictable format because foreign policy is "an area in which anything could be asked." The town hall format for the later debates, says Warnick, may be more interesting to the public. "There is a big drop-off in viewership as the debates continue, and the largest audience is usually for the first debate. It would be unfortunate if the first debate seems overly "canned" and the public loses interest in the later debates," she said.

Warnick is author of "Rhetoric Online: Persuasion and Politics on the World Wide Web" (New York: Peter Lang, 2007). Her research focuses on what new media mean for rhetorical analysis and criticism. In her current research, Warnick questions how persuasion as a form of social influence occurs in new media environments. She also explores how the modes of communication in new media environments are shaped and constrained by the media in which they are communicated. Contact Barbara Warnick at 412-624-1564 (office), or

Gerald Shuster, an expert in presidential rhetoric and political communication in Pitt's Department of Communication, says that the candidates know the questions they will be asked and are well prepared to stay within the script. "They will deviate intentionally and answer indirectly rather than make a mistake in terms of their overall campaign strategy and party policies," he said. But, however schooled and skilled they are, Shuster says candidates can make mistakes. "It's the follow-up questions that can catch the candidates off guard."

Shuster is primarily interested in the political arena from a communications perspective, evaluating communications theories and concepts in campaigns by the strategies candidates and political parties use. Shuster's expertise includes the modern presidency, from John F. Kennedy to the current president. Shuster frequently provides the media with commentary on political issues, campaigns, and events, as well as analysis of presidential addresses. Contact Gerald Shuster at 412-624-5199 (office), or