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Understanding Political Speak

Two UCF experts in rhetoric and politics take us behind the words candidates use.

Every fourth year is said to be the most important one in the history of America. We know this because the politicians tell us. They also tell us, “The American people deserve [fill in the blank]!” and “I can promise you this: [Fill in a longer blank]!”

Stephanie Wheeler is not an easy sell when it comes to political verbiage, whether it comes from a candidate, the media or friends. The director of writing and rhetoric programs at UCF believes we can too easily bite on any phrases that follow “Mark my words!” (“Take our country back!” “War on the middle class!”)

“We should all be aware not only of what politicians are saying, but of what they’re not saying,” says Wheeler, who trained her ear on spoken words as a 9-year-old baseball fan listening to sports talk in northeast Ohio.

Each political party crafts a few catchphrases to help its candidate stay on track with messaging during the pressure of speeches and debates. Those phrases are specifically designed to make quick emotional connections with an audience and to make it easy for listeners to repeat to others.

“Clever lines are red flags to me,” Wheeler says. “The purpose is to make us believe the candidate can help us gain a complete understanding of a complex issue in a few words. But most people don’t understand where those words come from.”

Aubrey Jewett knows. Political discourse is a second language for UCF’s assistant director of politics, security and international affairs. He was raised within the beltway of the nation’s capital and later worked as a legislative analyst for the influential Florida Chamber of Commerce and as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C.

“My experiences allowed me to see how political communication is framed by people around a candidate — speechwriters, lobbyists, campaign leaders — to sell us on an issue and to motivate voters,” Jewett says.

“I believe most politicians are sincere about their positions, but they need someone to package them to make them memorable. That’s where polls of voters and communication specialists shape the wording. On the topic of healthcare, for example, one party uses the word ‘access’ and the other party uses ‘socialized medicine.’ It’s strategic in hopes of mobilizing voters.”

If words and phrases created behind the scenes can lead to victory, then does it even matter which candidate says them? Wheeler’s Basics of Rhetorical Traditions class teaches students to be relatable and authentic.

“For each party it’s crucial to match specific messages with the candidate’s personality,” Wheeler says. “One candidate might sound more genuine by telling stories while another candidate is better at working a crowd. Their respective strengths will dictate the words they’re told to use.”

However, words alone are not enough. Success on election day essentially comes down to what Wheeler and Jewett call the all-important X factor.

“If you have ‘it,’ then voters will overlook a lot,” Jewett says, meaning voters often pay attention to everything but words. “The 1960 presidential debate is the classic example of how the nonverbal can make or break an election.”

In that debate, most viewers who saw the tan, pleasant John F. Kennedy on TV favored him to the pale, sweaty Richard Nixon, who was recovering from the flu. But most people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won.

“Politicians can use all kinds of methods to connect with voters,” Jewett says. “Sometimes carefully crafted words work, and sometimes they don’t.”

Wheeler urges all of us to focus after hearing a politician say, “Let me make myself clear!” Then perhaps we can decipher what she gleans with her trained ears. “The message might be meaningful,” she says, “or it might mean nothing at all.”