‘Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy’.
Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, 1988 US Vice-Presidential Debate
Election Time and one of the highlights for the voter, be they uninterested, disinterested or highly partisan, is the set-piece TV debate between party leaders. On the negative side, there is plenty of potential for error; like Luke being guided into the Death Star, the constant mantra for the politician is ‘Stay on Target, Stay on Target!’ But there’s also the opportunity of landing a ‘zinger’ on your opponent; a killer line that can change a campaign. TV debates can be approached from several points of view (to continue with the Sci-Fi analogy, it’s like ‘Star Trek’ multi-dimensional chess) and among the more important is…the starting position.
It all depends on where you’re coming from
The frontrunner has it all to lose. Will they flub their lines, alienate their soft support, take their supporters for granted or promise too much? Or, as they’ll aim to do, manage to sound both Presidential, i.e. like a leader, and not give any hostages to fortune at the same time. Frontrunner spin doctors will usually play down their lead in the run up to a debate; complacent or cocky is the last thing a candidate wants to be perceived as.
The ‘Insurgent’ will want to go on the attack. They’ll have briefed the media on their under-dog role well in advance; they’ll have laid the groundwork to spin the outcome as the candidate/party on the up. They’ll have to gamble and try and land a few punches but the reward can be a handsome bounce in the polls.
The candidate/party in last place is out to limit damage and, if polling really low, to die with dignity. It’s vital that they try to halt the death march and give their supporters some hope. The temptation to throw caution to the wind is really acute.
Who are you aiming for? What is your Message?
Shoring up the Base is crucial. If they haven’t got their core supporters sewn up, they’re in for a drubbing. Making ‘dog-whistle’ calls to the Base rather than pandering is a more effective strategy when it comes to winning votes from the Centre Ground. Obama gold-dust has lost a lot of lustre since 2008 but you can bet all candidates be promising change/newness. Look out for triangulation – taking policies from Left and Right – as a candidate seeks to increase their support from the Middle. Or a leader may be looking to woo supporters from another camp by outflanking a rival on the Left or the Right. Political debate strategy and tactics are akin to poker; the candidate will keep their cards close to their chests as they seek to out-think and outplay their rivals.
Watch your Tone
John McCain had a distinguished career in the US Senate yet one of the more memorable quotes he’s remembered for in his lack-lustre performances against Obama was his referring to his opponent as that ‘that one’. ‘Grumpy’ or irritable is a big vote loser; it looks petty. McCain never shook off the ‘Grumpy Old Man’ label.
‘Folksy’ can backfire too but when successfully applied, can really boost a candidate’s standing. Ronald Reagan used it to devastating effect against both Carter and Mondale. ‘Morning in America’ won out over empirically based policies. By portraying the Democrats as liberal (elite), lofty (elite) or pointy-headed (elite), Reagan painted his opponents into a corner.
The hardest tone to take for TV purposes, and most people will have to fake it, is that of ‘The Natural’; Clinton had it in spades. Can a candidate appear as all things to all men and get away with it? Can they ‘feel your pain’, inspire you, amuse you? Do they pass the ‘beer test’ i.e. would you feel at ease going for a drink with Candidate X more than Candidate Y and why so?
Looks ain’t everything but…
TV is a superficial medium and appearance counts. Age, suit colours, height all have a role to play in both conscious and more usually subconscious decisions made by voters. Party Leaders will be sending out lots of non-verbal cues when appearing on television; a lot of the time, a floating voter may not be aware of why they’re predisposed to like a certain candidate. The partisan supporter has, of course, already made up their mind; they don’t really care how the candidate looks.
Just be yourself?
TV Debates are the equivalent of a job interview in front of a panel of thousands of unseen interviewers. By all means be yourself, but that means being a ‘Natural’ when integrating strategy, tone, message and appearance. If you can do that, you’re elected. Then all the hard work starts…