Primary debates: why they matter and how to win


Presidential primary debates: they’re televised political theatre that are designed to both determine the next leader of the free world and bring in revenue for sponsors. For many Americans, debates are like Olympic Speed Walking; something you watch every four years, though you’re never precisely sure why (admit it: you’re imagining Bernie Sanders and Mike Huckabee face-off in speed walking right now. Neither are winning). Many critics point out that the one minute answers hardly show if candidates understand policy nuances. Further, with eleven candidates on stage and a moderator, one could suggest that these are not debates with any meaningful back and forth, and are nothing more than unified press conferences. Despite all the cynicism surrounding our political process, as someone interested in politics and a competitive debaters, primary debates are my sport of choice. While it’s easy to disregard these debates as shallow political theatre, I’d wager that they matter a great deal, and help democracy in America. Candidates have won the nomination and later the Presidency based on these debates; cynical viewers should dismiss or trivialize them at their own peril.

Why do these debates matter? Primary debates provide three unique opportunities for candidates.

First, debates provide free media. Underfunded candidates who cannot afford massive national ad buys live and die off of debates, as they’re the only chance they have for millions of Americans to watch them on television and hear their case. In 2012, Newt Gingrich, even while low on funds, became a frontrunner and won the South Carolina Primary, all by turning in powerful debate performances.

Second, primary debates provide a chance for candidates to boost their name. Early on in most primary cycles, the best known candidate will be the frontrunner by default (like Trump, Bush, or Clinton). Lesser known candidates have the twin challenge of both persuading voters that they’re right for the job and helping the voters learn who they even are in the first place. That’s why after the first GOP debate, even after a sleepy performance, Ben Carson’s poll numbers went up dramatically; because it was the first time a large number of voters even heard of him. Boosting name ID just gives candidates more potential supporters.

Finally, debates are the only chance to have a direct visual comparison with other candidates. If a candidate (like Trump) has insulted you, you can call him out on it on live TV (as Bush and Fiorina did Wednesday night). Debates give candidates a venue for voters to compare their options.

How do candidates win debates? That often changes from candidate to candidate, but there are four basic fundamentals.

The first is to manage expectations. If a candidate can lower expectations, then they can turn in an average debate performance and trumpet it as a victory, since they exceeded expectations. It’s the equivalent of telling your date ‘uhh, I've never really danced before’ the whole car ride to prom, despite the fact that you’ve been practicing your moves all week.

Second, candidates should walk into the debate with a message, a message they can tie some of their answers back to. Voters have short memories, and debates have lots of questions, so a candidate should want the viewers to leave remembering something unique about their performance.

Third, candidates should engage with both the questions and the other candidates. It’s important to engage with the other candidates, challenging them if they say something you disagree with, putting them on the spot or providing a contrast between your records. You don’t want to remain isolated from the discussion, as Walker and Huckabee were in the last debate. It doesn’t matter if you’re giving all the right answers if no one knows why that makes you better than the guy next to you.

Fourth, connect with the audience. While the moderators may be asking the questions, it’s the people who want to hear the answers. Making politics, taxes, foreign policy, health care, education or the candidates themselves relevant to the viewer is needed in order to build that connection. If you’re the candidate, and you are certain you’re right on the issues and the smartest guy in the room, it doesn’t matter unless someone is listening and unless someone cares. That’s why debaters like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were boundlessly better than their rivals; they made politics relevant.

Don’t ever think you’re too good for the theatrics of our democratic process. These debates matter, and they also take a great deal of skill. In a country that laments voter apathy, twenty-three million Americans watching a political debate is a boon, not something we should regret. That’s why I’m looking forward to the Democrats' debate next month. In the meantime, I suppose I’ll watch some Olympic Speed Walking highlights.