Thursday evening, the eyes of the political world will be on a stage in Cleveland, Ohio, where the top candidates for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination will face off in the first in a series of debates to be held over the next several months. A few of the candidates will have had significant debate experience — Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for instance, is actually in the Princeton University Debate Team Hall of Fame — but many (e.g., Donald Trump, as he’s been reminding us) will have not. Cruz may actually be handicapped by his previous debate experience — a political debate is a totally different animal than a college debate. Consequently, the Rules for Winning Political Debates are also totally different — and the smarter candidates will be the ones who know that, and act accordingly.
Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: “Victory” in a political debate has nothing to do with being the candidate who offers the most compelling and logical arguments for his or her position.
Victory in a political debate is achieved, rather, by the candidate who does the best job of relating to the audience on an emotional level, making the audience feel as if he or she is the candidate who best understands their concerns and is most committed to working for their best interests. Victory is determined by an emotional response in the gut of the audience, rather than by an intellectual response in the mind of the audience. The heart, not the head, is the proper target.
‘NICE’ BEATS ‘NOT NICE’: You don’t run for President without having an ego, and the debate stage in Cleveland will be full of large egos. It’s typical for those with large egos to believe themselves to be right all, or at least almost all, of the time. Consequently, their tendency, when hit, is to hit back. This is fine in a football game, but not in a debate. The candidates are in a multicandidate contest, and any votes they succeed in driving away from the opponent who hit them don’t necessarily have to come back to them — they could just as easily go to one of the other candidates. The smart candidates will recognize that they are playing for their own voters — it is not their job to build up anyone else’s negatives, it is their job to build up their own positives. In 2016, Republican primary voters won’t be looking to nominate the candidate who best beats up on other Republicans; they’ll be looking to nominate the candidate who best beats up on Hillary Clinton.
‘NICE’ BEATS ‘SMART’: It doesn’t matter whether you’re perceived as the smartest guy in the room; it matters whether you are perceived as the nicest guy in the room. Your goal with the audience is to make them feel comfortable with you as their leader for the next four years, not to convince them that they should hire you to run Cybersecurity for the Pentagon. “Smart” implies, for most voters, “elite” — and “elite” is often translated into “arrogant” and “out of touch” and “does not understand/cannot relate to me.” Let the other candidates show off how “smart” they are, or how well they understand the nuances of the federal budget; every time they do, they will be sending a signal to the audience that they are in a different class, while you win the argument over which candidate they would rather have a beer with.
WHAT COUNTS IS NOT WHAT YOU ARE SAYING; WHAT COUNTS IS WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT: In the campaign communications wars, controlling the subject of the argument is more important than controlling the content of the argument. Smart candidates will jockey to move the conversation toward topics that are their strengths, and steer the conversation away from topics that display their weaknesses. If Jeb Bush avoids a discussion of Common Core or creating a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, he will have done well for himself; no matter how reasoned his thoughts might be on those two subjects, the mere discussion of either will put him on the defensive.
WHAT COUNTS IS NOT WHAT YOU ARE SAYING; WHAT COUNTS IS HOW YOU ARE SAYING IT: Content is not as important as style. Tone of voice, level of interest, attitude, eye contact… these things all convey messages we’re not even aware of (unless we pay attention to them specifically), and they are just as important as the messages we are trying to send.
BODY LANGUAGE COUNTS: Non-verbal cues are at least as important as verbal cues in determining whether or not voters feel comfortable with a candidate. Standing up straight (or sitting up straight) projects strength and respect (subliminally, voters connect with it — it implies time in the military (which is viewed as a strong positive for most voters); maintaining eye contact with those you are addressing is key (voters pick up on how interested or uninterested you are by watching what you appear to be looking at); rolling of the eyes and/or facial expressions while another candidate is answering a question convey lots of information about what you’re thinking, and what kind of a person you are. Remember Al Gore’s eye-rolls during his debates with George W. Bush? Don’t be that guy.
THE AUDIENCE IS NOT IN THE ROOM: They’re at home, watching on TV. And even with all the hype, there won’t be 10 million people watching the debate live. So the audience is watching clips on the news the following day, or reading about it in the newspapers the next day, or — most likely — seeing what their friends have posted about the debate on Facebook or even Twitter. Do not make the mistake of playing to the moderator, or the panelists, or even the other candidates; remember at all times that the audience you are trying to win over is the invisible audience at home.
THINK ABOUT THE NEWS COVERAGE YOU SEEK, AND WORK BACKWORDS: Think about the photos you want to see when you pick up tomorrow’s newspapers, and think about the headlines on top of them, and the captions underneath them. Why? Because that’s how most people “read” the newspapers — they see the photos first, then the headlines, then they read the captions on the photos that catch their eye. What do you need to do to generate that kind of coverage? Out of two hours of official debate time, you’re likely only going to get about 10 minutes of air time, so use it well. Decide how it is you want to be portrayed, and then act that way in the debate.
YOU ARE ALWAYS ‘ON’: From the moment you walk onto the stage until the moment you leave, you will be on camera. Assume, in fact, that every camera in the room is trained on you at all times, even when someone else is talking. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you, so act accordingly.
Will following these rules guarantee victory in upcoming debates? No. But it’ll certainly lessen the likelihood that a candidate’s debate performances will be panned by the critics and activists alike — and, if done well, help make possible victory in the long slog ahead.
Mr. Pascoe is a political consultant with long experience in debate preparations.