Winning a presidential debate is as much about presence as it is the strength of a candidate’s positions, say communications experts.
So who has the edge heading into what some pundits are billing as one of the most consequential series of presidential debates in modern political history? We asked two veteran debate watchers what to look for during Wednesday night’s debate and in the two showdowns to follow.
The likeability factor
The Obama vs. Romney contest has been remarkably stable over the past few months. The public perceptions of the two candidates are largely cemented, and neither one has succeeded in getting above 50 percent in the national polling for any sustained period of time.
But the televised debates offer both candidates a fresh opportunity to convince voters, many of whom are just now tuning into the race, that they’re amiable.
“The biggest thing viewers tend to forget is the goal is not to be right; the goal is to be liked,” says Dave Solimini, who’s done speechwriting and debate prep for presidential and congressional campaigns and is currently with the Truman National Security Project.
The likeability question is a vexing one for Romney. According to the latest Reuters-IPSOS poll, Obama leads his Republican rival 54 percent to 28 percent when it comes to likeability. For Romney, says Solimini, the key is to come across as both likeable and presidential—a combination the candidate has struggled to find on the campaign trail.
Obama’s challenge: avoid looking aloof or coming across as condescending, says Melissa Wade, who served on the National Associated Press Presidential Debate Evaluation Panel for every election starting in 1976.
“In an age of Twitter, word efficiency and communication at the simplest level, there is a benefit to explaining things in such a way that people don’t need an advanced economics degree,” Wade says of Obama.
The experience factor
Romney has plenty of debate experience, and in some ways he’s already set the bar high; the veteran debater has been on stage for at least 20 debates in the last 18 months. The White House has also been working to cement the perception that Obama is the underdog in Wednesday night’s debate. The president himself told reporters this week that he’s nothing more than an “OK” debater.
In this sense, taking advantage of a debate’s structure is critical to success, says Solimini. Debate one will feature a more traditional setup—two podiums and a focus on domestic policy. Debate number two will have the candidates sitting on stools and interacting with voters in a town hall format. The kicker is that the moderators will be allowed significant discretion for follow-ups, particularly in the first debate, so repeating the same talking point will come off evasive.
“If the moderator decides to really push Romney on more than a dozen issues, Romney doesn’t have the policy depth to retreat into,” contends Solimini, who thinks the president can play the policy angle to his advantage.
Wade says Romney needs to offer more substantive responses than the ones he has been providing on the campaign trail, if he wants these debates to be a game-changer. But Wade argues the structure may actually work to the challenger’s advantage. Romney, she says, can appear empathetic during the domestic debate while playing commander-in-chief during the foreign policy debate, without worrying about those images conflicting.
“The challenger looks more presidential by simply being on the stage with the president,” Wade says. “Relying on his business experience will emphasize that.”