Advances in GOP Debate Signaling

The history of presidential debates is full of innovations. There’s ignoring the moderator’s question, talking beyond your allotted time, and saying “oops” when your forget a simple answer.

The latest fad is note-taking in order to signal disagreement. Any time a candidate gets attacked too early in their opponent’s statement for an immediate response, they go straight for the pen and paper. And it’s a smart move because it accomplishes three things.

  1. It shows the audience you disagree as the earliest possible moment, and that casts some measure of additional doubt on everything that comes next. It also does it in a way that doesn’t make the audience hate you. It’s not as bad as Al Gore muttering or John Kerry calling Bush a “disreputable Commie equivocator.”
  2. It distracts the audience from what your opponent is saying. It may not be perceptible, but when your brain notices that Santorum is writing, it devotes less attention to Romney’s words. At the margin, that makes it less likely you’ll follow what Romney is saying.
  3. It distracts your opponent from what he is saying. Sure, everybody is an experienced politician, but if I was speaking on a stage and could choose to have the guy next to me stand still or write vigorously, I would prefer he stand still. Again, it might make a difference at the margins.

I do think we are close to “peak note-taking.” At some point a viral satire/critique of the practice will emerge, and nobody will ever be able to do it again.


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