If you’re running for office, chances are you’ll be asked to participate in one or more debates or campaign forums.  They’re popular with voters, allow underfunded candidates to get their messages out, and allow all candidates to draw live, in-person contrasts with their opponents in an earned media format.

Of course, if you’re going to participate in a debate, you want to make sure that you win that debate.  In this article, we’ll take a look at the basics of winning a political campaign debate.  These tips and strategies apply no matter what office you are running for or what the profile of your debate is… from nationally televised presidential debates to local town debates in front of 30 people at the local elementary school.

They key to successful debating lies in preparation.  Most memorable debates in modern history aren’t memorable because of the great performance of a candidate; they are memorable because of major candidate blunders.  With that it mind, make sure your candidate is well prepared and well versed in the issues of the campaign before you joust in your first debate.

Should You Debate?

The first question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I even want to debate?”  Remember, for most elections, you don’t have to debate.  Yes, there are some campaigns where there is a strong tradition of debating, like the US Presidential elections and some big-city mayoral elections.  But, for the most part, campaigns and candidates are under no obligation to set foot on the debate floor.

The only concern the campaign should have when deciding whether or not to debate is: will this debate help my candidate win?  When making your decision, put aside all of your supporters who say, “Oh you have to debate, everyone does!” and think… will this debate help us win?  If you decide not to debate, the truth is that while it may be a story for a day, most people won’t care whether you debate or not.

How do you know if debating will help your candidate?

First, ask yourself if your candidate is a good public speaker, and a good debater.  Does he or she think well on their feet?  Can they answer questions from the audience and journalists on the fly?  Do they present well?  If not, can the practice and train enough to do so?

Second ask, “What’s in it for us?” If you’re behind in the polls, will this debate give you a chance to catch up (usually, the answer is yes).  If you’re ahead in the polls, will this debate cement your lead?  Is it worth the risk?  Only you can answer these questions. Remember, when deciding whether or not to debate, the only question you need to ask yourself is, “Will this debate help us win?”

If you decide not to debate, don’t make a big fuss out of it.  Prepare some one-liners to use in responding to your opponents’ sure criticism that you are ducking the debate, and then move on to your message.  Some possible lines include:

* Debates are for show, campaigns are for real.  Rather than spending two hours arguing with my opponent, I’m going door to door every night listening to real voters and doing the hard work of this campaign.  I invite my opponent to get out of the TV studio and join me.  You know, the issues voters really care about are…

* I know my opponent is focused on getting his/her face on TV.  I’m not.  I’m focused on the fact that businesses are fleeing our town because of high taxes and an uneducated workforce.  Let’s get our priorities straight… We’re confident we would win a debate, but I think there’s a better use for my time than debate prep.  Tomorrow, I’ll be at the Garafalo Company, announcing my new jobs creation plan…

Negotiating the Debate Format

If debating is likely to help you win, the next step is to negotiate the debate format.  Remember, at any time in the negotiations, your campaign can decide not to debate.  If your opponent, or the debate sponsor won’t agree to your “must have” demands, you can always walk away.  Negotiations are usually done between the candidates and the debate sponsor, and also may or may not include the press.

The items that are on the table include:

  • What is the debate format?  Is it a classic debate?  A town hall?  Who will speak first?  Who will speak last?  Will there be opening and closing statements? Rebuttals?  Will the candidates ask each other questions?  How long will the debate segments run?
  • Who will ask the questions?  Who will moderate the debate?  Will the audience be asking questions?
  • Who will sit in the audience?
  • What topics will the debate cover?
  • Where will the debate be held?

Make sure that the debate terms suit your candidate, if at all possible.  If he is good at interacting with the audience, push for a town hall style debate.  If she isn’t good on international affairs, suggest that the debate focus on economic policy.

Try to make the debate terms favorable to your candidate’s unique strengths.

Be sure that the terms are fair or better to your side: don’t let the debate be held on your opponent’s geographical turf, and make sure that your fair share of supporters can sit in the audience.  Also, if at all possible, try to speak last at the debate.  Having the last word lets your candidate answer any charges made by your opponent, and allows him or her to frame the entire debate in the minds of viewers.

Preparing for the Debate

Debate preparation is key to your success, but is time-consuming and often mind-numbing.  In preparing for the debate, your candidate should:

  1. Know the rules – He or she can’t debate effectively if they don’t understand the format.
  2. Know the facts – Prepare debate prep binders for your candidate, broken down by topic / issue, that contain facts, figures, and anecdotes on all of the key campaign issues.
  3. Know your opponent – Your candidate should study videotapes of your opponent’s speeches or past debates to learn how to exploit their weaknesses.
  4. Know themselves – Candidates should spend lots of time learning what their opponent’s lines of attack are going to be, and how to defend against them.
  5. Know the lines – Great debate lines, stirring phrases, and compelling stories are not thought up on the fly in the middle of a debate.  They are crafted and practiced beforehand.  Spend time preparing great applause lines and stories with your candidate, and then rehearse them over and over again.
  6. Practice – Over and over again, both by him or herself and against live debaters who stand-in for your real opponent.
  7. Relax – Stress shows.  Get a good night’s sleep, and take the morning before the debate off to relax.

That, in a nutshell, is the formula for successful debate preparation.

The Three Rules of Successful Political Debating

Even with lots of practice, many candidates get flustered by debating.  Candidates worry that a major flub or embarrassing revelation is right around the corner.  In truth, most debates are rather boring affairs.  The three keys to making sure that your candidate shines in his or her debates are:

ONE:  TAKE YOUR TIME!  Don’t rush your answers, don’t jump in without thought.  Spend time thinking through your responses before you make them.

TWO: STAY ON MESSAGE!  No matter what the question, bring your answer back to your message and your issues during the first 30 seconds of your response.  Control the debate.

THREE: YOU WIN!  No matter what the outcome of the debate, declare victory, loudly and proudly.

After the Debate

Immediately after the debate, your campaign operation should spring into gear.  If your opponent made misstatements of fact, have your campaign “truth squad” ready to give out research proving that he was wrong.  If reporters didn’t believe one of your candidate’s answers, get research out on that as well.

Have prominent supporters on hand to declare your candidate the winner.  Send out a press release noting how you won the debate, and highlighting the issues you raised there.  Ask supporters to write letters to the editor talking about how well you did, and how your opponent dodged the questions or answered questions incorrectly.  And no matter what happened… declare victory!