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Lev Raphael Headshot

Really Listening to the Debate

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Commentators with all kinds of opinions are analyzing last night's debate along predictable lines and with predictable language. They're fact checking. They're talking about body language. They're talking about performance.

But they seem to be missing something crucial that works on viewers and listeners more subtly than finger pointing or accusations: voice pitch and modulation.

Despite some occasional hesitations mid-sentence, President Obama sounded smooth, controlled, forceful. His voice is deeper than Mitt Romney's and he commands it very well. We saw that in the 2008 campaign, and we did not see it in the first presidential debate where he seemed hesitant and his sentences sometimes felt herky-jerky.

Romney's voice is generally higher than Obama's as well as tighter. When he was stressed, those characteristics became more obvious. Anger makes his voice pinched and whiny, which was most obvious during his final comment about being misrepresented by the Obama campaign. By contrast, anger makes the President sound more in control.

I spent most of the debate riveted by the screen, and was focused on the point-counterpoint. But whenever I got up to get something to drink, the difference between the two men's voices was remarkably stark. One sounded presidential, the other just sounded a bit lost. It's not surprising that Obama sounded so good last night; we know he can sing when he wants to, and we know he can be fully present in his words.

Lev Raphael is the former host of a public radio interview show in Lansing, Michigan.