In the 1960s, the so-called "guru of media," Marshall McLuhan, dubbed television the "cool medium." He used the "hot-cool medium" distinction to explain why and how John Kennedy won the presidency and in particular, beat Richard Nixon in the very first presidential debate in history.
For McLuhan, Kennedy was the perfect new style candidate for the relatively, cool new medium of television. In contrast, Nixon, like radio, was not new, but was hot instead, and came with jagged edges and sharp attacks that alienated the television viewer now growing accustomed to being entertained by the cool medium.
Media and politics students have learned for 48 years now that in that same first debate, radio listeners thought Nixon had won, beating Kennedy on traditional debate points. The strength of that alleged research finding remains in doubt but one need only watch the debate to see the enormous contrast between Nixon and Kennedy.
Understanding McLuhan's hot-cool distinction can help us understand how it is that with each debate, Barack Obama has lengthened and solidified his lead in the polls over John McCain.
The country is looking for steady leadership in a time of near, unprecedented uncertainty, and the still cool medium of television is helping Barack Obama convey a calm, reassuring image in synch with what the people are looking for. McCain, like Nixon, is conveying an unsteady image, one that is sometimes edgy and even harsh, and while likable at times, not consistently calm.
For years, students of media and politics have correctly cited the debate as a turning point in the history of political communication. One need only experience the cool, calm, and collected Kennedy style in the first 10 minutes of the first debate, and contrast it to the Nixon's harsh image, his darting eyes, five o'clock shadow, and sweaty upper lip to see why he was thought to have lost.
In each debate this year, the country has seen an unflappable, cool and calm candidate in Barack Obama, a man in whom the country may soon put its trust.
For McLuhan, television was cool because the image was less clear and more like a vague and uncertain Rorschach inkblot, an image one could project themselves into and take back more of what they personally wanted. And so it was with Kennedy and so it is with Obama. In Nixon, one often didn't like what they saw, and the polls clearly show that viewers have not liked what liking they've seen in Senator McCain the last few weeks.
Though I haven't listened to the debates on radio, here McCain may be falling down as well. His voice is higher than Obama's and occasionally edges toward the shrill or whiny. Barack Obama's voice is deep, more resonant, and, once again, reassuring.
In the 2008 case study of Obama vs McCain, Obama's cool style is the winner. But even worse for McCain, to this observer, Senator Obama is not only out-pointing McCain on style, he's also got the edge on substance.
Many forces are working against John McCain: two-terms of failed Republican rule, an economy that has spiraled out of control, but also an extraordinarily nimble young opponent who's got style and Kennedy-cool to spare.