Blunder: Talking down to your opponent. Remember, the other person is running for major office, too, and must be doing something right. “In debates, you expect attacks, aggression, conflict,” Mr. McKinney said. “But do the candidates spar with each other in a way that remains courteous, rather than snarky and belittling? That is beneath what we regard as presidential timber.”
Fool’s gold standard:Mr. Gore’s sighing aside, two examples stand out. During the 1984 vice presidential debate, George H.W. Bush’s continual references to Democratic challenger Geraldine Ferraro as “Mrs.” instead of “Congresswoman” and his offer to explain the nuances of international diplomacy led Ferraro to proclaim, “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” During a 2008 Democratic primary debate, Hillary Rodham Clinton replied to a moderator’s question about competing with Barack Obama on the basis of “likability” by stating, “That hurts my feelings, but I’ll try to go on. He’s very likable — I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad.” Mr. Obama’s infamous reply, delivered with seemingly dismissive indifference? “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” Shots fired.
Antidote: Show some respect, or at least fake it. Hammer the other candidate in a friendly-seeming way. Be confident, but not a grating know-it-all. And don’t rely on the room to let you know when you’ve gone too far. “Because the debate audience is different than the audience at a campaign stop — nonpartisan and not being audible — you may not understand that you are coming off as condescending,” said University of Michigan debate team coach Aaron Kall. “Then all of a sudden you see it in the social media and the spin rooms that things are getting attention.”
Quotable: “The one moment where maybe being condescending worked, physical rather than verbal, was when Romney put his hand on Perry’s shoulder [during the Republican primaries],” Mr. Lanoue said. “It played to the narrative that Perry was this unprepared schoolboy and Romney had to help him out. It would be an enormous mistake for Romney to do that to Obama.”
Blunder: Getting in your opponent’s face.
Fool’s gold standard: A tie. During a 2000 presidential debate, Mr. Gore asked Republican opponent Mr. Bush to offer his opinion on a piece of legislation, then walked halfway across the stage in a seemingly misguided attempt at physical intimidation. Mr. Bush’s response — a nonchalant, ‘sup bro nod — not only defused the moment by making the audience laugh, but also made Mr. Gore look like an awkward dope. In a U.S. Senate debate in New York the same year, Republican candidate Rick Lazio walked over to the podium of Mrs. Clinton and demanded that she sign a pledge against soft money. Pointing and hectoring, Mr. Lazio resembled nothing so much as an over-caffeinated Jerry Maguire, trying desperately to sign the star quarterback. Voters were not impressed.
Antidote: Easy. Just follow the rules. Following Mr. Gore’s debacle, presidential debate organizers decreed that each candidate may “move about in a predesignated area.” “They didn’t have to change the rules,” Mr. Lanoue said with a laugh. “At that point, the rule was ‘Don’t be like Gore.’ I don’t think anyone will try that again.”
Quotable: “I think Gore had done that in a primary debate, too,” Mr. Lanoue said. “I know the Bush people were prepared for that possibility. I think Gore was trying to elicit some kind of inappropriate response from Bush. They assumed he would be nervous. He had a bit of a temper. Maybe he would pop off. But that’s kind of Hail Mary pass territory, not something you do when the polls are tied.”
Lost in (body language) translation
Blunder: Look good to feel good — and if you don’t feel good, look good anyway. Otherwise, voters will notice. “You would like to think that debates are won and scored on points of substance and policy,” Mr. Kall said. “But even in college debates, a lot of times it’s just aesthetics. Nonverbal cues and signals. They matter, because they help create a gut reaction about who performed better.”
Fool’s gold standard: Another tie. In 1960, the first televised presidential debate in history pitted Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon against Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy. Having just spent more than a week in a hospital for knee surgery and a staph infection, Nixon appeared underweight, unshaven, sweaty and ashen; he even refused to wear makeup. By contrast, Kennedy looked tan, rested and perfectly coiffed — famously leading television viewers to conclude that he won the debate, even though radio listeners judged the contest a draw.
“That was Kennedy’s first chance to really show himself on the national stage for the first time since the convention,” Mr. Lanoue said. “He faced questions — is this guy really experienced enough to be president? Is he just an ambitious playboy? His dad’s creation? With his performance and appearance, he was able to answer those concerns. Nixon already was seen in many quarters as a shaky character. He had given the ‘Checkers’ speech. So the fact that he looked awkward and uncomfortable, eyes darting back and forth, may have played into the narrative that he was what Harry S. Truman called him, a ‘shifty-eyed [expletive] liar.’”
In 1992, George H.W. Bush didn’t look suspicious. He looked bored. When an audience member at a town-hall-style debate asked the president how the recession personally affected him, Mr. Bush checked his watch before giving a rambling, impersonal answer — a sharp contrast to Democratic challenger Bill Clinton’s empathetic, feel-your-pain response. “That reinforced the sense among people that Bush was sort of detached, wasn’t engaged,” said John Carroll, a communications professor at Boston University. “Meanwhile, you have Clinton bounding off the stage with this tremendous energy. The country was in a recession, and voters had to ask: Who do I want fighting for me?”
Antidote: Remember what Mom told you: Stand up straight. “You want to maintain good posture and make sure that you are always upright,” Mr. Kall said. “That allows you to do the best breathing, which gives you the best performance. There are a lot of distractions in a debate, but eye contact is very important. You want the judge or the TV audience to think they are the focal point in the room. Only don’t wink like Sarah Palin did [in the 2008 vice presidential debate] — that came off as a little weird.”