Political debates are exciting and challenging. In a few rare instances, debates turn the tide of the campaign, tipping the balance towards one candidate or another. Usually, however, this is not the case. For most debates in most elections, the debate will not have a drastic effect on the election, but this doesn’t mean that debates aren’t important.
Debates provide candidates with a rare opportunity to present their message unfiltered and to a wide audience. Your supporters will be counting on a good performance, and your detractors looking for serious blunders. Debates can energize a campaign, stimulate volunteers, and excite donors. For these reasons, serious preparation and planning should be undertaken before the day of the debate.
What is a “debate?”
For the purposes of this article, a debate is any occasion where both candidates will be sharing the same stage. This occasion could be a traditional political debate, with both candidates making opening and closing statements and answering questions, or it could be a candidate forum, a panel discussion, etc.
No matter what type of debate it is, it is important for the candidate and campaign staff to know, as far in advance as possible, what the particulars of the debate are. These particulars include the set-up, the timing, who will be asking questions or making comments, who will be in the audience, etc. Generally, the candidates involved in the event will be able to negotiate these terms. This is particularly true in traditional debates. When negotiating, the campaign staff should decide what debate format and style fit well with their candidate and campaign strategy, and insist on a debate format that works for the campaign.
Should you Debate at All?
Remember – you don’t have to debate. Even if your supporters are urging you to debate your opponent, you can still say “no.” The decision on whether to debate should be made by looking at the campaign strategy and message. You should also take into consideration the debate format you are presented with. If it is not beneficial for you to debate, don’t. You must have a reason to debate. If your campaign will not clearly benefit, then decline the invitation.
There are two main components to pre-debate preparation. These are research and writing. Your candidate should be prepared for every question he or she may be asked, and for every answer his or her opponent(s) may give. Because of this, the campaign staff should prepare research on you opponents(s), on all the issues facing the district, as well as on your own candidate.
Many campaigns organize these various pieces of research onto “issue cards.” These cards contain a brief explanation of the issue, statistics relating to the issue, and some anecdotes or one-liners. The candidate can use these cards to constantly reinforce the issue in his or her own mind. The campaign can also prepare cards that outline specific lines of attack you can use against your opponent.
The second major part of preparation is writing. Your candidate should have stories, one-liners and arguments prepared (as much as possible) before the debate. Rehearse what your candidate is going to say. Having memorized material available will make the candidate feel more comfortable and enable him or her to keep driving home the key points your campaign wants to raise
The key to successful political debating is the candidate’s ability to get the message out that your campaign wants to project. Before the debate, the campaign should decide two or three points that it wants to stress during the debate. These points should coincide with your campaign message and strategy. Then, during the course of the debate, your candidate should strive to tie each answer (no matter what the question) to one of these points. After the debate is over, the audience should have received your message, no matter what your opponent said or what questions the moderator asked.
Whether this is the candidate’s first debate or their tenth, practice is integral to debating success. Hold practice debates. Mimic, as closely as possible, the conditions of the actual debate, including opponents and format. The candidate should practice alone as well, in order to become comfortable with his or her prepared material, statistics and issues.
No Matter What, You Won
There are no official scorekeepers at a political debate. Instead, the question of who “won” or “lost” the debate is subjective. No matter what happens, your campaign should always declare victory. Your press staff should spin the debate for reporters, issue press releases, and talk up the candidate’s performance. The only way your candidate will “win” the debate is if you declare that he or she has, and publicly put the debate in the best possible light.