Debate season is officially underway in the US and while each side went away claiming victory, we want to explore the real importance of political debates during elections.
Televised debates have been the window to the candidate's character ever since we saw Richard Nixon perspire all over the stage when he took on a young JFK back in 1960. There is nowhere to hide behind the skinny microphone and the well-rehearsed candidate usually, survives under the powerful stage lights. There is no time to pat yourself on the back however as the media will already have dissected every hand movement, every stutter, mispronunciation to sprawl all over the internet and beyond. Your debate will be put on repeat in the campaign office until the next one and eventually it will become nothing more than 90 mins of poorly constructed sentences in the minds of you and your team.
Hold Yourself Well
Debating style is obviously unique to each individual. Take a certain Donald Trump, for example, confident yet vague. As an entrepreneur and more recently a television entertainer, Trump has honed an impenetrable sense of self. Even when he is proved wrong by facts and figures, he doesn’t seem to feel the pressure, instead, he moves onto a newer, more controversial topic.
Evasive yet emotive is another way to describe the Trump style of debating. While he tends to avoid the heavier weighted questions outside his realm of expertise, he hits back with classic sound bites “I want to make America Great Again”. He uses these soundbites to connect with his supporters on a different level and, I’m not sure if it’s our obsession with celebrity culture, but it is something that Hillary fails to do. Here Trump benefits from being outside the political scene.
Eye rolling, clenched fists, shaking your head, all these actions are only split second reactions but will be seen by millions and be interpreted differently by all your voters. George Bush was caught doing all the above in 2004 whilst debating John Kerry. With the war in Iraq and terrorism the hot topics of the time, Bush was seen to take Kerry’s arguments very personally and as a direct attack on his Presidency. The public did not respond well to Bush’s apparent sensitivity. You can watch the Bush faces of frustration here.
So the learnings here are that no matter what, hold yourself strong and unmoved by the attacks your rival will throw your way.
The Dangers of Debates
The first and most obvious danger during a debate is your opposition. What kind of speaker are they? Are they going to attack you over a policy you may have backed or will they ridicule you for your latest endorsement?
We all know that Trump is at his most lethal when he is on the offensive - never shying away from landing personal blows. Last night was different however ,the first in a series of three debates running up to November's election, the candidates seemed restrained. They began by discussing race and policing and finished with ISIS, both hugely controversial issues in the US at the moment. However, both parties towed the party line and while Hillary got in her quips and Trump interrupted everyone, (including himself), we learned nothing new. This first debate was an opportunity to gain more votes and I think it is safe to say neither party accomplished that.
Of course, not only do you have to worry about your opposition, you must also worry about the moderator.
CNN anchor Bernard Shaw moderated the second debate of 1988 which saw Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis take on George Bush Snr.
Dukakis was widely seen as a technocrat, a man whose inner character remained a mystery to many voters. The night before the debate, at 2 a.m., Shaw thought of the question that could crack that shell and elicit passion from the candidate. And so he began the debate with it: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
Reporters were shocked, but Dukakis seemed unperturbed. In a clinical and dispassionate manner, Dukakis simply said “No, I don’t Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”
It was as though Dukakis was talking about a stranger, answering in the same tone that a professor might use to explain a basic point of fact in the classroom. Voters were taken aback by how little passion the candidate seemed to have. “It was a question about Dukakis’s values and emotions,” his campaign director, Susan Estrich, later recalled. “When he answered by talking policy, I knew we lost the election.”
The important thing to take away from the Dukakis debate is that in debating while you need to answer accurately, you also need to answer truthfully. Don't hide behind law and policy. Give a sense of self. Dukakis failed miserably here and Hillary Clinton should certainly take note.
Fail To Prepare, Prepare to Fail
Famously, the very first televised presidential debate offered early evidence that all future debates would be visual affairs. After eight years as Vice President, Richard Nixon was running to inherit the White House from the enormously popular Dwight Eisenhower. His challenger was John F. Kennedy, the charismatic young Massachusetts senator whose eloquence and matinee-idol looks captivated much of the nation.
On September 26, at the candidates’ first debate, Nixon proved to be in strong command of policy. But he looked terrible. During their televised rumble, Nixon could be seen sweating and, on camera, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. His pale color and five o'clock shadow didn’t help. All of which undercut his performance against Kennedy, who was a vision of youthful vigor.
Last night, Clinton looked slightly more comfortable on stage, albeit a little stiff in our opinion.
She was organized and you could see her mind operating quickly and shrewdly behind her eyes as Trump continued to interrupt her. As the debate wore on her confidence grew. She seemed aware of what was at stake last night, she didn’t really aim to gain more voters but simply put a little doubt in Trump’s current voters that he is a flight risk. He sniffled his way through the beginning of the debate but this all seemed to undercut him as he questioned the former Secretary of State's stamina.
“You criticize me for preparing for this debate,” Clinton said. “And, yes, I did. Do you know what else I prepared for? I also prepared to be President.”
Now while many will conclude that Clinton is the more experienced candidate, she can seem rather institutionalized, and with that comes an air of entitlement. Trump wins here by scrapping his way to the position he seems himself in, an outsider bet who surprised the masses. True, he is doing so by using any ammo in his arsenal, be it sexism, racism, and other distasteful methods at times but as yet, it is not talk that has hurt him unduly.
With two more debates to come, it’s hard to say if Hillary will rest on her laurels as Trump is still a dangerous opponent. One thing is for sure, he won’t be as underprepared for his next debate.
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