Memo to Rick Perry: Rules for Victory in a Debate.

Memo to Rick Perry: Rules for Victory in a Debate.

With the permission of my friend and colleague, Bill Pascoe, I am posting one of his recent blogs on the rules of political debates. I said friend, but truthfully Bill is more. If I was headed over a cliff I’d toss my billfold to Bill knowing that he’d make sure it would be safely returned to my family. We’ve worked in several campaigns together. He is one of the sharpest political minds I know, and I always feel better when he is at the table. And while I also have had occasion to coach many a candidate for debates, Bill was the one I turned to for help last year when I had to prepare for two live televised debates in New York.


TO: Gov. Perry

FROM: Bill Pascoe

DATE: September 29, 2011

RE: Rules for Victory in Future Debates

Your performance in the last two debates has fallen short of expectations.

Herewith, some thoughts on how to improve your performance in future debates.

Begin with a simple proposition: “Victory” in political debates is rarely achieved by the candidate who confines himself to concentrating on putting forth the most logical and compelling intellectual argument.

Victory is achieved, rather, by the candidate who does the best job of relating to the audience on an emotional level, making the audience feel as if he/she is the candidate who best understands their concerns and is most committed to working for their best interests. Victory is determined by an emotional response in the gut of the audience, rather than by an intellectual response in the mind of the audience. The heart, not the head, is the proper target.

This is not to suggest, however, that ideology plays no role in winning or losing debates; in fact, ideological contrasts, when used properly, can provide the winning contrast – but only when used to demonstrate an emotional connection, rather than intellectual or logical superiority. That is, ideological distinctions and contrasts should be used to demonstrate that one candidate “gets it,” or the other candidate is “out of touch” or “out of the mainstream,” rather than just being used to argue a position on an intellectual level.

This is the basis for the following Rules for Victory.

“NICE” BEATS “NOT NICE”: Your instinct, when under pressure, is to hit back harder. This is fine in a football game, but not in a debate. You are in a multicandidate contest, and any votes you succeed in driving away from Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann don’t necessarily have to come to you – they could just as easily go to Herman Cain (see, for example, Florida’s straw poll). You are playing for your own voters – it is not your job to build up anyone else’s negatives, it is your job to build up your own positives. Republican primary voters aren’t looking to nominate the guy who best beats up on other Republicans; they’re looking to nominate the guy who best beats up on Barack Obama.

WHAT COUNTS IS NOT WHAT YOU ARE SAYING; WHAT COUNTS IS WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT: Winning political communication battles is more of a function of controlling the subject of the argument than it is about controlling the content of the argument. If you can take charge of the debate conversation and get them to effectively spend the entire debate talking about outrageous tax hikes, out of control spending, and the need for principled conservative leadership, you will win; if, by contrast, you spend the entire debate talking about whether or not we need a fence on the border, whether or not you can be bought for a $5,000 contribution, or granting in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, you will not.

Use pivot phrases like, “That question might seem, on the face of it, to lead to an interesting discussion – but we’ve got families right here in (fill in the name of the debate host city) who are struggling to make ends meet …” or “Yes, we could talk about that, but how does the answer to that question help the family that’s struggling to make ends meet while their taxes are going up and their income is going down?” or “I can see why you might find that interesting, but I think we’re missing a larger and more important point here – if we don’t bring some experience and determination and common sense thinking to the Oval Office, we’re never going to be able to get a handle on spending …” etc.

WHAT COUNTS IS NOT WHAT ARE YOU SAYING; WHAT COUNTS IS HOW YOU ARE SAYING IT. Content is not as important as style. Tone of voice, apparent level of interest, attitude, etc. – these things all convey messages we’re not even aware of (unless we pay attention to them specifically), and they are just as important as the messages we are trying to send.

THE AUDIENCE IS NOT IN THE ROOM: The audience is at home, watching on television, or watching clips on the news the following day, or reading about it in the newspapers the next day. Do not make the mistake of playing to the moderator, or the panelists, or even the other candidates; remember at all times that the audience you are trying to win over is the invisible audience at home.

THINK ABOUT THE RESULT YOU WANT, AND WORK BACKWARD: Think about what you want to read in the newspaper the next day about your performance in the debate – do you want to be described as “passionate,” “cutting,” sure of himself,” or “thoughtful,” “warm,” and “engaging” (just as an example)? Decide how it is you want to be portrayed, and then act that way in the debate.

BODY LANGUAGE COUNTS: Non-verbal cues are at least as important as verbal cues in determining whether or not voters feel comfortable with a candidate. Standing up straight (or sitting up straight) projects strength and respect (subliminally, voters connect with it – it implies time in the military, which is viewed as a strong positive for most voters – and since, unlike most of the others against whom you’re competing, you actually served, you should take advantage of it, even subliminally); maintaining eye contact with those you are addressing is key (voters pick up on how interested or disinterested you are by watching what you appear to be looking at); rolling of the eyes and/or facial expressions while another candidate is answering a question convey lots of information about what you’re thinking, and what kind of a man you are. Remember Al Gore? In 2000, I mean.

“NICE” BEATS “SMART”: It doesn’t matter whether you’re the smartest guy in the room; it matters whether you are perceived as being the nicest guy in the room. Your goal with the audience is to make them feel comfortable with you as their leader for the next four years, not to convince them that they should hire you to run NASA. “Smart” implies, for most voters, “elite” – and “elite” is often translated into “arrogant” and “out of touch” and “does not understand/cannot relate to me.” Let the other candidates try show off how “smart” they are, or how well they understand the nuances of the federal budget; every time they do, they will be sending a signal to the audience that they are in a different class, while you win the argument over which candidate they would rather have a beer with.

YOU ARE ALWAYS “ON”: From the moment you walk onto the stage until the moment you walk off, you must act as if there is a camera focused on you and you alone. Assume that any odd expression or slip of the tongue will be recorded, and could be reported or even broadcast later.

* * * * * *

 Bill Pascoe, Executive Vice President of Citizens for the Republic, is a three-decade veteran of the political wars who cut his teeth professionally on the Reagan campaign of 1980. He is one of the original signers of our Declaration of Principles.

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