Articles

How To Win The GOP's 10-Candidate Debate

July 29, 2015

On Thursday, Aug. 6, the 2016 presidential race will enter a new and important phase. Ten Republican presidential candidates will step on stage in a prime-time debate in Cleveland sponsored by Fox News and Facebook. The remaining GOP candidates will debate earlier that day. Viewership will be large, giving contenders their best opportunity so far to present their views, values and character to millions of Americans. 

Although the event is advertised as a two-hour debate, the large number of candidates ensures that it will feel more like 10 simultaneous news conferences. After introductions, questions and commercials, each candidate will get roughly 10 minutes of speaking time, divided into answers of one minute and rebuttals of 30 seconds, plus a short closing statement. This translates into around seven questions per candidate.

So what to look for? In a debate like this, candidates must convey—in word, tone and demeanor—two or three things they want us to remember. If they don’t have a narrative or do a poor job of sharing it, that’s their fault, not the viewers’.

The moderators—Fox News’s Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace—will ask serious questions about consequential topics. Look for who is prepared and who isn’t. Glib only goes so far. 

Candidates need strong counters to their perceived weaknesses. Humor, particularly if it is self-deprecating, is among the most powerful tools. Most candidates will be prepared to deploy funny lines if the moment is right.

Remember President Ronald Reagan in his October 1984 debate with Walter Mondale? Critics had made Reagan’s age—he was 73—into a campaign issue favoring Mr. Mondale, who was a sprightly 56. Reagan dismissed the matter with a joke: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The crowd and Mr. Mondale laughed. It looked easy. It wasn’t.

In a multicandidate melee like next week’s debate, an unprovoked aggressor may damage his target but is likely to hurt himself more in the process. That’s because the counterpunch is often more powerful than the punch. Setting the record straight can be a strong response, especially if it is not done defensively but with confidence, brio and wit. 

Watch for arrogance or a condescending tone. Remember then-Sen. Barack Obama’s comment in the January 2008 primary debate in New Hampshire? Hillary Clinton was asked to respond to voters who didn’t find her likable. The question was to Mrs. Clinton, but Mr. Obama interjected: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” That told us more about him than her.

Then there are comments that can follow a candidate into the general election. In the January 2012 GOP primary debate in Tampa, Mitt Romney suggested that illegal immigration could be solved in part through “self-deportation.” He ended up winning only 27% of Hispanics voters the following November. 

Some candidates may use their time to settle a score or to send the conversation in a different direction. Both are acceptable, but only if they also provide a direct response to the question asked. Not answering corrodes credibility. 

Television is a “cool” medium, so most times, being “hot” in a debate is bad. Anger doesn’t sell, except when justified in self-defense. In the January 2012 primary debate in Jacksonville, Mr. Romney rebutted attacks on his finances: “I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it.” The crowd cheered.

Much of what people think about debates comes from sound bites played afterward. But with social media, there is a debate about the debate taking place during the debate. There were 10.3 million tweets during the Romney-Obama debate in 2012. Imagine what will happen now with so many other platforms available and campaigns exploiting all of them. 

Finally, pay close attention to the personal impression each candidate creates. Appearing confident, comfortable, reassuring and knowledgeable can be every bit as important as saying the right things. Viewers are looking for a real person, not a performer.

In 2000, friends of then-Gov. George W. Bush told him before debates to “be yourself.” Sounds simple, but it isn’t given the pressure and tendency to over-prepare. Still, letting the inner you out can be devastatingly effective. When Vice President Al Gore tried intimidating Mr. Bush during their third debate by walking into Mr. Bush’s space to menace him, he was being himself. So was the Texas governor when he paused for an instant, nodded at Mr. Gore and offered a knowing grin to the audience. Game, set, match. 

Moments like that don’t come along all that often. It’s worth tuning in to see if there will be one next week.

A version of this article appeared July 30, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline How To Win The GOP's 10-Candidate Debate and online at WSJ.com.

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