The proliferation of media outlets has created outsized expectations for candidates in those big moments during televised debates or the Sunday morning shows.
A great performance can lead to new supporters and attention; think Carly Fiorina. Underperforming, though, can be the death knell for a candidate, as we witnessed in the case of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).
Many have predicted the end of the influence of television with viewers increasingly turning to the small screen, but current debate ratings have proven that funeral march to be premature.
How does a candidate prepare for that big television moment, when the moderator finally turns and asks a question? It’s time to turn it on and turn it up, but as I have said in this column before, it takes practice.
Media training for television is a never-ending commitment by the candidate and his or her staff to continue learning and evolving. The psychological toll of the horse-race style campaign can be debilitating to a candidate and their ego. An up-and-down television performance by an untrained or inexperienced candidate is easy to spot – and criticize.
Some candidates have the fearlessness and charisma to be comfortable in almost any situation, knowing how to pivot away from the questions to give an answer solely based on their campaign message. Others stumble and bumble and leave viewers with the perception that they aren’t ready for primetime.
Walker, who suspended his campaign late last month, is the perfect example of knowing exactly what he needed to do in the second televised debate but failing to execute his publically stated strategy. Private practice could have helped Walker’s debate performance – teaching him the timing of when to engage – instead of speaking for only eight minutes of the three-hour event.
A candidate’s in-person persona doesn’t translate to television. They may be great on the stump, or have the best kitchen table manners, but if a candidate doesn’t understand what comes through on television, he or she will continue to fail in the big moments.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie exemplifies another instance of how TV can be problematic for candidates. We’re not talking about his weight, but we are. Go back to the most recent debate in California and look how Christie slumped on his podium when he believed he wasn’t in the camera shot.
This lack of posture, or a stance that looks oafish and lazy, perpetuates his unhealthy and lack-of-stamina stereotype. Television can be a cruel truth-teller. What people see, they tend to believe. Again, a candidate needs to practice their presence at all times to be ready when the lights come on.
How television is the great equalizer can be summed up by the recent phoned-in appearances by businessman Donald Trump. Never before has a candidate been given such a pass at appearing live or taped on television. When Trump does make an in-person appearance, such as in the debates, his face is rouged and disfigured. For a guy who owned a stake in Atlantic City, he should stay away from poker. Trump has no poker face and by not forcing him to appear in-person on television, the Sunday news shows are doing a disservice to viewers and to the other candidates.
We know the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and that couldn’t be more telling than with Trump. Seeing his expressions, his coloring, his hair, and his physicality on television tells the viewer much more than a grainy cellphone line.
Meanwhile, Fiorina is an example of what good television training can do for a candidate begging for airtime. She was always going to look different from the dark-suited men on the stage, but she obviously practiced the gotcha questions and had complete control and poise. Her training enabled her to find a rhythm and a voice in a not-so-friendly environment.
Television is all about looks. We may not like to admit it, but we judge our candidates on their facial expressions, their clothes, and we sometimes go a little deeper to listen to how they answer a question. On television it isn’t how candidates respond, but how they appear while replying.
Carrie Giddins Pergram is a political consultant and professor of political communications.