Seven Questions

Seven Questions: How to Prepare for the Big Debate

U.S. voters have just over a month to decide on whether to put John McCain and Sarah Palin or Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the White House. With the polls tight, the remaining debates could be decisive. FP spoke with debate expert Alan Schroeder to find out how the candidates get ready -- and how they can avoid crippling mistakes.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Policy: With the first presidential debate last week, and the vice presidential debate this Thursday, can you give us some insight into what is involved in preparing for some of these high-stakes debates leading up to the election?

Alan Schroeder: A lot depends on the individual candidate. It can be as simple as [studying] written briefing books. This is done for everybody. For some, it is just the beginning and for others that is a big portion. Then, as [the candidates] go along, what they try to do is attempt to replicate the circumstances of the debate. That means staging a mock debate with a mock opponent.

[Former President] Bill Clinton would stage literal dress rehearsals. If [the debate] ran 90 minutes, he would work for 90 minutes. They would build a set and use the set as it would be used in real debates, with lights and video so that they had an opportunity to go back and critique it.

[The campaigns] select someone to serve as the moderator. If it is a town-hall-style debate, usually they have campaign staffers stand in for members of the public and ask [different] types of questions on a variety of issues. Sometimes in those rehearsals, [the candidates] will wear the outfit that they’re going to wear so that they can see what it looks like on camera and look at combinations of suits and ties.

In addition, candidates usually have less formal sessions where they are just doing question-and-answer drills with campaign aides. Occasionally they’ll work on specific language to use in answering a question. Certain phrases are repeated through the course of the debate. We saw this in the first debate when McCain kept saying, [Senator Obama] doesnt understand, or variations on that over and over again. Occasionally, they will even prepare jokes or lighthearted comments.

In 1996, there was a debate in California, so Clinton and his team moved to New Mexico because they wanted to be on the right body clock. That’s not a factor this year, but it shows you the degree of attention that campaigns pay to these debates.

FP: How much of the debaters content and talking points come from the staff, and how much candidate input is there in this process?

AS: When they prepare the briefing materials, they take into account everything the candidate has said and his or her record. They also go in and compile all of the statements of opponents. For example, you would have a section on Pakistan where you not only read your talking points but also everything that your opponent has said on these particular issues so that you can draw comparisons.

FP: In this year’s campaign in particular, we have seen a lot of attention paid to how accurate the facts used by the candidate — sabout themselves and their opponents — really are. Why do you think such an emphasis has been placed on this and where does it come from?

AS: To my knowledge, fact-checking is a more recent phenomenon. There was a famous episode [when] Gerald Ford in 1976 [said that] Poland and Eastern Europe were not under Soviet domination, which of course was wrong. He came in for a great deal of criticism for making that erroneous statement and not retracting it. Ever since then, the press has been on guard for statements that are not accurate. This was also [brought to the forefront] by independent bloggers, by independent fact-check organizations, and of course with the Internet it has gotten easier.

FP: But has all this fact-checking really pushed candidates toward more honesty — or does it work in the other direction?

AS: I think it probably makes it a little more difficult for candidates to outrageously contradict the truth. For example, in 2004, [in his vice presidential debate with John Edwards], Dick Cheney said [something like], “This is the first time I’ve ever met you,” which was supposed to be an indication that [Edwards] was not very powerful in Washington. Within minutes, people on the Internet were able to find photographs of Edwards and Cheney together.

FP: Every candidate seems to have his or her own debating style. Can you give us an idea of what different strategies youve seen and which have been the most successful?

AS: What seems to work pretty well is if one of the candidates can take command of the event. A certain level of aggressiveness and assertiveness seems to work, but the trick is that you don’t want to cross the line to being aggressive in an inappropriate way. I am thinking of a 2000 debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush in which Gore walked up to Bush and got in his face, and Bush reacted with this surprised look. The people in the audience sort of started laughing and it backfired on Gore, because it made him look a little presumptuous.

FP: What key strengths and deficits have you seen in the presidential debates thus far?

AS: It works to draw a contrast between your and your opponents positions, but also not to attack your opponent in a personal way. We saw the other night that John McCain was perceived by many to be personally demonstrating animosity towards Obama rather than focusing his displeasure on the policies.

He also had this very strange style where he never looked at his opponent, which played very negative and made him look very disdainful of Obama. On the plus side, he was very aggressive and seized the lead on a lot of the discussion, particularly in the second half after they got off the economy and onto foreign policy. McCain really took charge.

Obama is extremely calm and extremely self-possessed, and those are both qualities that serve a debater very well. But he doesn’t always seize the opportunities that present themselves, and he might have done a better job drawing the contrast between himself and his opponent. He was a little too agreeable.

FP: What should we be watching for in the upcoming debates?

AS: I always watch for how they treat each other. You can tell a lot [about a person] by how he interacts with those around him, particularly in a high-pressure situation of this sort. Then, command of the issues: Do they know what theyre talking about?

[The debates have] been called a job interview, so a lot of times we are just going on instinct. You don’t know what really will happen when you hire someone, so does this person give off an aura of being able to handle the very difficult job of being president? You can’t know for sure, but you can apply the very same judgments about human interaction that you use on daily basis. That’s what debates do that the rest of the campaign trail doesn’t.

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