Jeanna Sybert's political communication Q&A with Dr. Jerry Shuster

Jeanna Sybert is a Junior Communication and Political Science major. Below is her interview with Dr. Jerry Shuster about the current presidential election. 

Can you briefly compare and contrast the rhetoric of the two candidates? 

The rhetorical style of Trump is rather obvious. It is one that is clearly abrasive and reflects his temperament much more than the rhetoric of Clinton. He often speaks impromptu without giving much thought to the content and implications of what he’s about to say. Communication theory basics dictate that if the sender is intent on getting the message across in an effective manner, the sender must put the mind in gear before the mouth goes in gear. Clearly Trump does not do that. Clinton, on the other hand, is generally effective at evaluating what she thinks she ought to say and precisely how she should say it. That’s not to suggest that she’s perfect by any means, but she’s certainly much more confident, much more straightforward, and utilizes far less abrasive language unless she’s talking directly about her opponent, than Trump. She seems to give much more thought to her response.

So in terms of being persuasive, when considering rhetorical basics, I think Clinton probably gets the star for that one. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s particularly convincing because, from time to time, she certainly has her moments especially when one considers how much her rhetoric is repetitive. We know that speakers need to repeat certain things, but she gets a little annoying doing that from time to time. She also doesn’t say a great deal that’s new.

What do you think about each candidate's ability to utilize pathos or engage the emotions of the audience?

Clearly Trump attempts to focus on that much too much. He tries to generate a lot more emotion from the audience as opposed to Clinton and he succeeds. Clinton on the other hand, more often tries to get her audience to think about her comments. In terms of the pathos that both candidates are attempting to generate, Clinton wins on that score too. But there’s no doubt Trumps’ audiences are far more engaged and reactive to what he has to say. They reinforce much of what he says by their emotional feedback. They’re very vocal about being supportive.

Since image is generally a major factor in affecting success or failure in the minds of voters, which of the two has edge in this category and why? 

Actually, neither of them does.  Trump on one hand has to deal with his abrasive, arrogant style which early on in the primaries served well as he effectively bullied his opponents. Trump, in short, has allowed his temperament to dictate his style. As a result, he has made nasty, denigrating comments about ethnic groups, women, and various other groups and organizations, all of which has resulted in stereotyping him so negatively. Clinton, on the other hand, continues to fail as she attempts to dispel the feeling of mistrust for her and the electorate’s low approval rating of her in that category. Consequently, the image that prevails, for the most part, is negative for both of them and neither their rhetoric or strategy seems able to dispel the negative image of either. People think that Trump just shoots from the hip without thinking about the implications of his comments. Nothing Clinton says seems to provide any assist in enhancing her credibility. She stays pretty much where she started out in that critical area. People are still evaluating the honesty factor. And now that the FBI has made public it’s continuing the investigation of her e-mails, which it had earlier said was over, the polls reflect even more voters are now having questions about her integrity.

Do you think the recent release of that story is going to profoundly affect Clinton this close to the election?

I don’t know if I would characterize it as profoundly, but it certainly has negatively impacted Clinton’s campaign. In fact where she was once, according to certain polls, leading by double digits, her lead’s now back down to within the margin of error with some of the more reputable polls. Coming this close to the election, I’m sure whatever lead she has, has been negatively impacted.

How has non-verbal communication such as gestures, mannerisms, and facial expressions impacted the overall image of each candidate in the 2016 presidential election?

As with any communicator, nonverbals carry a great deal of weight as to how the message is interpreted and that is no less evident in this campaign.  Nonverbals of both candidates has had a profound influence during the three debates. Even though initially, both candidates started off with a fairly professional appearance, presentational style, and their nonverbals reflected that professionalism about a third of the way through the debates, you see this positive nonverbal image falter.  First with Trump as he started to display more of his temperament, his arrogance as exhibited by his hand gestures and his facial expressions. The negative elements reinforced his lack of preparation and his frustration.  Add to that his cynicism and sarcasm, which have begun to demonstrate to voters so many negative attributes. Clinton, on the other hand, though seems generally effective at controlling most of her negative nonverbal, but only when Trump displays his negative side.  Her facial expressions seem to reinforce a kind of elitism from time to time and that has as much negative influence on the receivers as anything else. So, Clinton is much better at maintaining a positive image under most circumstances, but she’s not perfect by any means, while Trump is just a walking disaster. Had he listened to his advisers and followed their advice through the ninety minutes of the debate, he would have been far more effective in the debates.  

After the second debate, there was a viral image of Trump “looming” behind Clinton. Do you think that was intentional on his part? 

Part of that was format of the debate, somewhat unstructured, and allowing both to walk around and presumably intended to allow better interaction with the audience. No question Trump did seem to intentionally attempt to intimidate Clinton from time to time when he was standing behind her and clearly invading her space. I’m not sure if that was intentional. It was just his mannerism of walking around. He’s used to that kind of style. I think that was easily exhibited in that format but clearly not so when they were behind a lectern for the other two debates. It did affect Clinton as evidenced by her later comments.

There is often frustration from conservatives that the media is heavily biased against Trump and buries damaging stories about Secretary Clinton. Do you believe this to be true/false, and how important has the media's role been in this election cycle?

There isn’t any doubt that much of the media is much more supportive and openly positive about Clinton and until recent events, hurriedly jumped to print stories and discuss stories that are negative about Donald Trump. That seems to have changed with the release of new FBI reports about Clinton. Historically, however, Republicans by and large, have always been critical of the media, long before television’s influence, because they felt that media pundits were very biased in their approach and in some limited sense they’re probably accurate. You just have to deal with it. The concern is more focused now because of social media and because news is instantaneously 24-hour focused. We’re only seconds away from the media reporting on a particular event. People are just surrounded by it and that’s one of the negatives of the campaign. No matter where they turn, they are getting bombarded with news emanating from someone’s interview and comments made by so-and-so. As a result, it’s a deluge of media information, much of which is likely anti-Trump. But he’s his own worst enemy. He used the media to his advantage in the primary. He didn’t have to spend a lot of money, but just simply made incendiary or disparaging comments that automatically made the news. This was much to the dismay of the media. But, while it worked in the primary, it wasn’t playing well in the general election. Instead of talking about specifics on issues and how he would resolve problems, he would just make grandiose statements with no back up. That hasn’t worked in the general election as it did in the primary. As of last Friday and the new information from the FBI reports on Clinton’s e-mails, the race has tightened dramatically and press has focused much more on Clinton.

Will there ever be a time in the near future when a third party candidate can achieve both credibility and be a viable choice for a major office? Will a third party candidate have any influence on this year's election?

It’s possible that as an election tightens, a third party candidate can have a dramatic impact on an election. In Ohio and Pennsylvania for example where the race is very close, A third party candidate can indeed affect the outcome. If the third party candidate or the combined efforts of third candidates generate 4 or 5 percent of the total vote, that could have a dramatic impact on the election, depending on who those votes were taken from. If they were taken from Clinton, obviously, then the edge goes to Trump. If they were taken from Trump, then the reverse is true. Now in terms of the third party attaining more credibility, more viability-- if that is the case, then the process to achieve that goal has to start now. If there was ever a time where a third party could become viable and credible, this would be it. A common reaction to the quality of the current major party candidates suggests that there needs to be viable alternatives to what we have. But the process for change needs to begin now and can’t wait for the next presidential election to catapult a third party candidate into position. To openly allow a third party candidate to gain strength, plans and efforts to change the system must begin now.

Do you think if Gary Johnson or Jill Stein had entered the election earlier that they might have more support, or do you think they’re not strong candidates?

Neither of them are strong enough candidates. Johnson is stronger than Stein, but neither of them have been able to generate any significant national notoriety or interest to the extent that they become legitimate, formidable opponents for Trump or Clinton. But again, all they have to do in key battleground states is to generate a 4 to 6 percent total vote, which means that 4 to 6 percent did not vote for either Trump or Clinton. Those votes could impact the outcome of the election of a very close race. Ultimately, third party viability is possible.

So you think that if a strong third party candidate had entered early enough with a strong financial backing, it could have changed things?

Yes, absolutely. I think this election is clearly one of those times where, if there had been a strong third party candidate, who had plenty of financial and organizational support, then neither of the two major candidates could have afforded to ignore the third party.

What about Bernie Sanders? Does this relate to him?

Well, certainly he came in with a higher degree of credibility. But, credibility as a candidate formidable enough to beat a high profile candidate like Trump? I’m not sure that could have happened. He certainly attracted millennials, and he did it for a good reason. He knew what audience he was talking to and that’s something that made him appealing. He knew how to reach the audience he wanted to reach. Unfortunately, in terms of general popularity he kept targeting that same audience and couldn’t cross the generational lines from the Millennials to Gen. X-ers. Ultimately he became a formidable candidate which Clinton could not ignore. Again, it shows the effect of a credible, quality third party candidate. Initially, Bernie Sanders surprised many when he didn’t run as an Independent candidate because he would have been one candidate that neither Clinton or Trump could have afforded to ignore.

Is the Electoral College process still viable and even necessary? Why shouldn't the winner of the presidential election be the one who generates the highest number of popular votes? 

In this day and age the winner should be the candidate with the majority of the popular vote. The reason for that is very simple. Voters in less populated states like Wyoming or Nebraska obviously feel their votes don’t have the same weight or importance as those from key battlegrounds and more heavily populated states. That’s evidenced and reinforced by how few, if any, times and attention the major candidates have given to the less populated states. It’s as if they’re non-entities. If the winner is chosen based on the popular vote, then all votes will carry the same weight.

In the early days, whenever the system was first developed, our Founding Fathers knew that was probably the way to go and likely there was a solid basis for their conclusion. That’s not the case today, or shouldn’t be the case today. Whatever the validity for maintaining the electoral college once held, that is not the case today

What do you anticipate the political climate in the U.S. to be like after such a divisive and polarizing presidential election?

Very divisive. And gridlock will be very much apparent, even if the Democrats win the Senate majority and for this election only four major wins by the Democrats are needed to effect that outcome.  That’s why the Senate campaign in Pennsylvania so critical. That’s why expenditures for that campaign are expected to be in excess of $120 million in Pennsylvania making that race the single most expensive senatorial race in the entire nation and in its history. If Katie McGinty loses in Pennsylvania, the chances are dramatically reduced for the Senate to return to the Democratic majority. If the Democrats fail to get back the majority and Clinton wins, the gridlock will be even obvious and the interaction among elected officials far more contentious on a daily basis.

If Clinton wins the race, will it matter if Trump does not concede election?

Certainly not legally or from a constitutional perspective, but the overall effect on the nation will be very negative and it will keep the nation divided. Because as long as Trump keeps the fire lit about his dissatisfaction with the outcome, there will be so many people disenchanted with both the process and the outcome as to keep dissention very apparent. Trump supporters will never buy into Clinton’s policies or plans.  Their attitude will be: “There’s not a damn thing she can do to make me happy.” The end result of all this dissention is that it plays into the hands of our enemies, especially the terrorists. They would play on this divisiveness as a way to infiltrate our society and create even more serious security issues. For now, however, there is little for conciliatory attitudes to prevail and the gridlock will continue no matter the outcome of the election.