Presidential Debates

US Presidential Debate.

(The original article on the French presidential debates in 2007 between Mr Sarkozy and Madame Royal was published on the magazine of the American Chamber of Commerce. AMCHAM – Page 16)

What to look for in the upcoming presidential debate between Barak Obama and John McCain.

(Ségolène Royal, left and Nicolas Sarkozy, right)

Here are a few techniques that you should be looking for during the upcoming US presidential-debates.

Framing the debate.

Prior to the second Ronald Reagan / Walter Mondale debate in 1984, much was made of Ronald Reagan’s age. Mr Reagan successfully re-framed the issue by saying: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” All of the sudden, the debate was not going to be about old age, but about experience and lack of it. Twenty-three years later Nicolas Sarkozy gained the upper hand early on when during his debate with Ségolène Royal he framed it in  the first few minutes.

Journalist: “Just to loosen-up the atmosphere ‘how do you feel’ madame Royal?”
Royal: “Very well, proud to be here, very happy”
Journalist: “How about you Nicolas Sarkozy?”
Sarkozy: “[I am] Focused: this debate is a big responsibility… the French people have selected Mrs Royal and I to give back the dignity to politics… [people] will be able to say by the end of this debate ‘we know where each candidate stands’.”

Questions come in two general categories: open-ended and close-ended. This first question by the journalist was of the former kind. When asked “How do you feel?” one does not expect a precise answer (although the answer may be precise).

Mrs Royal’s answer lasted four seconds. The problem was that she missed an opportunity to frame the debate once and for all. She could have stated why she was there and what her key messages were. Instead, perhaps because of lack of preparation and focus, she did not seize the moment. Mr Sarkozy on the other hand did not miss this opportunity. In this case, Mr Sarkozy told the viewers what the debate was going to be about (dignity) and how to think about it (know where each candidate stands). Once the debate is framed, it is very difficult for both viewers and debaters alike to step-out of it.

As Thomas Friedman said, “if you name an issue, you own it”.

Facts stand in the way of opinions.

People like to believe that they are objective in their decision-making process. Most likely, people vote on the basis of “these are the opinions upon which my facts are based”. Nonetheless, any respectable post-Aristotelian form of government has to pay lip-service to science, statistics and facts.
Be prepared therefore, to withstand a sustained assault by both debaters. Any data presented to you will be qualified by a “facts speak for themselves” statement or something to that effect.
Unfortunately the facts tend not to speak for themselves. You will have to perform mathematical gymnastics throughout the night to beat meaning out of a single piece of data. Whenever a statistic or fact will be provided ask the following questions:

  • Who is the source of the data?
  • Are there other sources?
  • Would the data change if I chose a different time-frame?
  • Beware of relative statements dressed as absolute
  • Know the difference between median and mean and what each reveals
  • Forecasting the future is difficult, know and challenge the assumptions candidates make


It’s all in the delivery.

Look at where the candidates mark a pause when they speak. If they are well-prepared, they will pause right after a key word or sentence. This will allow you to sort out the main messages the candidates want to get through to the audience.

These candidates will be thoroughly prepared in terms of body language. Observe where their eyes go after they make a statement (do they go down or stare into the audience or camera). Likewise look at the hands and fingers, whether they point, tense or stretch. In general, their body language should underscore their words; for instance, an open palm with a conciliatory message.
If cameras permit, also observe the candidate who is not speaking. Try detecting body reactions to what his opponent says..

Winning or losing.

There are many other variables to consider during a debate; each subtly influencing the other as well as voters. It is likely that at the end of each debate, both sides will claim victory. Professionals, in their ultra-objectivity, will be left to debate who won and who lost; unless of course one of the two candidates makes a horrible blunder.

It is tough to win a debate outright but it is very easy to lose one.

* Souce: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/debates_campaigns.html

One response to “Presidential Debates

  1. Pingback: Presentation at “Cultura Democratica” « Mediacodex

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