I find that the presidential (and vice presidential) debates serve as much of a Rorschach test than anything else. By the time they occur, nearly everyone who is watching has already decided who they are going to vote for, so the interest is in how their impressions are turned into reflecting positively on their preferred candidate.
A lot goes into the presentation of the candidates (tall, assertive but not violent, etc.) so that they’ll be perceived as leaders and the political consultants are well read up on this data. But, how we perceive the candidates says as much about the choice we’ve already made than those running for office. Your candidate is taking charge? Then you prefer a leader who’s out in front of the crowd. Your candidate is more deliberate? Then you are looking for someone who is a consensus builder.
Besides exposing our biases towards the candidates, this also shows how flexible our thinking is in terms of leadership traits. If we can so easily bend them during a 90 minute debate, imagine how easy it is to perceive someone we like as a leader, without really paying much attention to his/her effectiveness.
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