2012 Election: Who Will Win the Great Debate?

How do you win a presidential debate? Associations Now gained some insight from the director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare for the first of three debates.

Now the real fun begins.

After weeks of attack ads, talk show appearances, and sit-downs with 60 Minutes, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will go head-to-head Wednesday night in the first of three presidential debates—if that’s what you’re willing to call them.

“These are more accurately called joint television appearances where they have journalists asking the questions,” said “J. Michael Hogan, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation and a professor at Pennsylvania State University. “A real debate would be more unpredictable. They couldn’t rely on the sound bites they use to answer reporters’ questions or that they pull right out of their campaign stump speeches.”

Either way, the presidential candidates will take the stage at the University of Denver and engage in a formal discourse on domestic policy.

While both candidates have extensive experience with the political debate format—Obama has been here before, and Romney is coming off 27 Republican primary debates in recent months—both have spent the past several days cramming and rehearsing.

Through some of my research, I’ve found documents prepared by their advisors that are very detailed in terms of strategic considerations.

“They actually do mock debates and take it very seriously,” said Hogan, who was a panelist this week on a National Communication Association program previewing the debates. “Through some of my research, I’ve found documents prepared by their advisors that are very detailed in terms of strategic considerations—things about their appearance, and whether or not they should wear glasses.”

But “there is such a thing as being overprepared,” he said. “You feel you have to follow a script, and it hurts your ability to respond to events as they unfold during the course of the debate.”

Hogan points to Ronald Reagan’s first debate in 1984, during which the incumbent president seemed uncomfortable. The speculation was that advisors had tried to script him too much, Hogan said. “During the second debate, they let Reagan be Reagan, and he was a bit more extemporaneous and did much better.”

Looking at Wednesday’s debate, Hogan expects the current state of the campaign to play a big role.

“You have a current incumbent president who appears to be ahead in most of the battleground states,” he said. “He’s going to be even more defensive, and try to be very cautious, and not fall for any kind of trap where he would misstate something.”

And for Romney?

“I would expect him to probably be a little bit more aggressive, because this is really his last opportunity he’s going to have to turn the tide. I’m sure [his staff are] contemplating ways that they can take the momentum.”

There’s no consensus about what constitutes a good debate performance, Hogan said, but campaign consultants will try to draw historical analogies: “They’ll ask, ‘What race is similar to the race we’re dealing with now?’ and ‘What candidates are comparable?’”

To Hogan, this race looks a lot like 1992.

“It reminds me of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the first town hall debate,” he said. “It was a format which Clinton was in favor of and Bush Sr. was horrified by, because he just didn’t feel comfortable in that setting. My sense is that Obama will be more comfortable.”

In strategy or substance, what will your association be watching for in Wednesday’s debate? Tell us in the comments.

(photos by Gage Skidmore/Flickr; marcn/Flickr)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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