Presidential Debates and the Power of Soundbites

US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney  shake hands October 3, 2012 at the conclusion of
US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shake hands October 3, 2012 at the conclusion of the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

"If you couldn't say it in less than 10 seconds, it wasn't heard because it wasn't aired." - Michael Dukakis, during the 1998 presidential election

In the political run-up to 1992 presidential election, a professor at the University of California published research that proved the length of the average television sound bite had dropped from 43 seconds during the 1968 presidential election to just nine seconds during the 1988 election. A 2011 study[1] published in the Journalism Studies Journal found that the typical political soundbite had shrunk to just eight seconds!

It sounds absurd, but trend is neither new nor specific to televised sound bites. According to the study, by 1916 the average political quotation in a newspaper story had shrunk from 1.71 column inches to about half the length of the average quotation in 1892; just 1.08 column inches. The authors of the study, sadly, did not address radio-derived sound bites, as radio's evolution would have likely offered similarly interesting data as that of television and newspapers.

Radio was like television for a few generations of Americans. Due to the sheer size of the audience during its heyday, sound bites were mastered on radio to communicate specific platforms. For example, during World War II public service announcements (PSAs) were aired on radio in order to encourage listeners to buy war bonds or, as in the following clip, get a job. What makes the following PSA so effective is its lyrical sound bite, "woman must work as men must fight."

Politicians are often keen on emerging media and how to use various platforms to communicate sound bite messages to possible constituents and voters. As the political soundbite shrunk over time the attention paid to memorable political quotes increased, especially on the campaign trail and in debates. Perhaps one of the most famous sound bites uttered during a debate came from Walter Mondale during a debate with Gary Hart during the 1984 presidential election when he asked Hart, "Where's the beef?"
Ronald Reagan was a master of debate, especially on television. During the 1980 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, Reagan chuckled as he uttered a lasting soundbite in response to Carter's reference to Reagan's votes against Medicare and Social Security benefits while governor of California.: "There you go again."
During the 1988 United States vice-presidential debate, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen taught Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle a lesson when Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

As you have read, two of the three historical and powerful soundbites chosen to highlight in this piece come from the vice-presidential debates, which may seem surprising to some. Those in the know should compare the gaffes generated during this year's presidential debates versus those generated during the vice presidential debate. Joe Biden could spend most of the evening with his left foot firmly inserted into his mouth, and who knows with young Paul Ryan? Is this another Bentsen-Quayle type of set-up? Keep your ears tuned.

For a list (and listen) of Wednesday night's Top-10 Most Listened to Sound Bites on from the 2012 presidential debate, click here:

[1] QUOTING PRACTICES, PATH DEPENDENCY AND THE BIRTH OF MODERN JOURNALISM, David M. Ryfe, Markus Kemmelmeier, Journalism Studies, Vol. 12, Iss. 1, 2011