I think it’s fair to say that Donald Trump won the primaries and Hillary Clinton won the battle of the conventions. Now we come to the debates. With two polar opposite candidates and a surprisingly large number of undecided voters, these verbal duels are expected to be among the most widely watched televised political events in a long time.
The debates, of course, are not really “debates” as properly understood. And although they are ostensibly about issues, they are really about personalities and creating moments -- sometimes as short as 10 seconds -- that can be replayed endlessly on TV, and mocked or celebrated on social media for decades to come.
I’ve watched every Presidential debate since Jimmy Carter and Gerry Ford met in 1976 (although sometimes I was watching through my fingers). I think this qualifies me to give debate tips. So here goes:
Beat expectations. The debates are the nation’s longest-running reality TV show program, where performance counts more than substance. And like much of life, performance is judged on expectation. In 2012, Mitt Romney performed much better than expected in his first debate against President Obama, which gave him a boost in the polls (that is, until he reverted to the mean in the second round). In 2016, the “expectations game” advantage goes to Trump, who is widely considered to be, shall we say, a shallow policy thinker. So all he needs to do is articulate a few cogent arguments and not commit any major faux pas and he’ll perform better than expected. This is also called “grading on a curve,” which drives the Clintonistas crazy, but that’s the dynamic of politics.
If you make a mistake address, it immediately. In 1976, Gerry Ford bizarrely claimed that the Soviet Union was not dominating Eastern Europe. But what made it worse was the campaign’s refusal to acknowledge there had been any misstatement at all. That made it an issue for days afterward. Same with Marco Rubio’s meltdown at the 2016 GOP New Hampshire debate, when he robotically repeated talking points after being accused by Chris Christie of robotically repeating talking points. Instead of making a joke about his brain freeze, Rubio doggedly insisted that he’d done nothing wrong -- and by the time he apologized for his poor performance, he’d fallen to fifth in the polls.
Be a gentleman to the lady. Trump can’t afford to bully Clinton like he bullied his male competitors during the primaries. Chivalry won’t allow it even in the 21st century -- as Barack Obama, a candidate as politically correct as they come, learned when he condescendingly said in one of their 2008 debates, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” She got so much sympathy that she surged in the polls (but not enough to win the nomination). But in terms of gender block-headedness, no one beats Rick Lazio, who during their New York Senate debate in 2000, approached Clinton’s podium, thrust a piece of paper in front of her and insisted that she sign a pledge against soft money. That looked aggressive and threatening, not manly.
Don’t stray from the podium. As Rick Lazio demonstrated, very little good can come of wandering away from your assigned spot. In 2000 Al Gore tried to assert dominance by getting in the face of George W. Bush, and it fell flat when Bush gave him a surprised and disdainful glance. Eight years later John McCain was caught on camera wandering around the stage while Obama was talking, which spawned a ton of online spoofs.
Use humor. Everyone is so uptight at these debates that a little joke goes a long way. Most famously, Ronald Reagan overcame the perception that he was too old to be president when he quipped that he wasn’t going to bring age into the campaign, and wouldn’t exploit “the youth and inexperience” of his opponent (that is, the well-traveled Walter Mondale). This year Trump has been the jokester -- but if Clinton could get off a self-deprecating zinger about one of her liabilities, it would help a lot.
But talk about grading of a curve! It wouldn’t take much for Clinton to beat expectations on her sense of humor, given that her most famous joke of the campaign was that she didn’t know who invented Pokemon Go, but wished someone would invent “Pokemon go to the polls.” Yeesh.
Don’t fall in love with your poll-tested metaphors. During one particularly painful debate in 2000, Al Gore kept promising to put Medicare in a “lock box” while George W. Bush repeatedly accused him of “fuzzy math.” They obviously thought these were killer moments. They weren’t.
Beware the Town Hall format. I really hate these phony Town Halls, where “real” voters are selected to ask questions, no matter how off-the-wall. Plus candidates are expected to sit at stools and casually approach the audience, which is how McCain got in trouble with his wandering. The worst performer was then-President George H.W. Bush, who was understandably flummoxed when a voter asked him how he’d been “personally affected by the national debt.” Huh? First he looked at his watch, as if he wanted to know how much longer this God-awful ordeal would last, and then he argued with the premise of the question. If you are asked a dumb question, acknowledge the voter’s pain and then move on to your own messaging.
And if someone asks if you’d be upset if a criminal raped and murdered your wife, say yes. Got that, Michael Dukakis?