A Survival Guide to the Presidential Debates

5 ways to get through another night of campaigning—and get something out of it.

It’s been the kind of election year that will leave everyone sighing with resounding relief when it’s all over on the morning of November 7.

But to get to that morning, we have to get through 34 more days. That’s 34 more days of campaign speeches, “approved by” commercials and, of course, the debates—debates that begin tonight, with the first face-off between President Barack Obama and former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney.

It would be easy to not even watch the debate. In an election season filled with mudslinging, vitriol and an arguably higher level of partisanship than we’ve ever witnessed before, why bother? Some political experts argue that debates rarely sway voters—indeed, they often further entrench people in their own beliefs—but the debates do seem to make a difference for that slender crowd that will be this election’s deciding factor: the swing voters.


Ultimately, the worth of the presidential debates is, well, debatable. But in a country where we have the freedom to elect officials, we have the responsibility to do so in an informed manner. In that sense, watching the debates becomes a sort of civic duty.

So, how can you make the most of the evening without growing even more disillusioned with politics? Here are five ways to ensure tonight’s debate (and each one after it) better informs your vote.

1. Remember it’s not really a “debate.”

This isn’t your high school debate team. The format the campaigns make the networks agree to doesn’t allow for any real, substantive debate, so you’ll be hearing the result of long hours poured into speechwriting, practice and scripting. There won’t be teleprompters—but there might as well be. If you’re tuning in for high-stakes argument, prepare to be disappointed.

Still, this is about as unscripted as you’ll get the candidates—so take full advantage.

2. Pay attention to style as much as substance.

This is about as unscripted as you’ll get the candidates—so take full advantage.

So, if the candidates won’t be saying anything new, what can you really learn?

A lot.

Historically, the debates reveal character. This is where it becomes apparent whether the candidates have the stature, composure and diplomacy to lead a nation.

Additionally, this is America’s first chance to hear the candidates’ narratives in parallel, rather than the one-way attacks of billboards and detracting commercials—and the way the men react to each other’s words will say a lot.

Statistics and post-debate polls show voters are swayed more by a candidates mannerisms during a debate than by the actual substance of what is being said. Remember Al Gore in the 2000 presidential debates? In one debate, he left his podium and walked right up to George W. Bush in what appeared to be an attempt to intimidate him—and Bush, giving Gore no more recognition than a head nod (which received much laughter from the audience) came away on top. In a later debate, Gore was seen rolling his eyes and chuckling at Bush’s comments. Fifty years after the first televised presidential debate, people still note how sweaty and nervous Richard Nixon appeared facing off against John F. Kennedy—Nixon entered the debate with wide lead, and his appearance is widely credited with erasing that lead and handing Kennedy the win.

3. Understand the topic.

Each debate (there are three with the presidential candidates) focuses on a single topic of discussion, and the moderator for the night chooses specific questions within that category.

The topic of tonight’s debate? Domestic policy. So, expect the bulk of the conversation to revolve around the economy.

Also expect to hear two entirely different narratives tonight. While President Obama’s 2008 campaign revolved around the idea of “change,” tonight will be all about Obama trying to convince the nation we don’t need change now. He’ll argue the country is making progress and that, with the foundation laid and a start toward progress, this isn’t the time to make major changes—that we need to stick through the next few years in order to see any real growth in the economy.

Romney, of course, has an entirely different view. Romney’s argument is that his years of experience in business makes him exceptionally qualified to take America’s economic direction in a new direction—that he can do a better job of creating jobs than Obama. He will argue that Obama’s policies have failed and that America deserves a better vision going forward.

Expect to also hear some back-and-forth on the topic of health care (Obamacare is too socialist; Romney enforced the strikingly similar Romneycare in Massachusettes), plus questions regarding the candidates’ stances on welfare and a bit about education.

But the economy is where the money is—or, well, isn’t, at the moment.

4. Pay attention to argument depth.

For many voters, this is the candidates’ last chance to prove their respective points. The candidates are skilled speakers and have a knack for answering questions with shallow answers that, quite frankly, aren’t so much answers as distractions.

Statistics and post-debate polls show voters are swayed more by a candidates mannerisms during a debate than by the actual substance of what is being said.

Critics of Romney point out that, thus far, the majority of his campaign has consisted of highlighting the flaws of the current administration. That’s a fair strategy for a candidate battling an incumbent president, but tonight’s debate is a chance for Romney to switch gears and lay out, in plain terms, what his plans are for the country. Coming off a shaky September in campaigning, Romney’s task is to prove he hasn’t written off 47 percent of the country, that his policies are right for America and that he’s relatable to the average Joe.

Obama has the task of proving he’s earned the right to a second term—or, at the very least, that changing tactics at this point would disrupt any progress the country is making.

Neither of the men will be able to accomplish these tasks set before them with answers that skirt the point of the matter. If you hear an answer you wish you knew more about, make a note of it and spend time doing research after the debate to dive deeper into where the candidate stands.

5. Be open to the “other” side—and be critical of your own.

This is the golden ticket, isn’t it?

Fact-checkers are going to work overtime tomorrow to vet each and every statement that comes from the debate. And yes—both sides will have faux pas.

The key to being an engaged debate-watcher is being prepared to be influenced. Even if you’ve already decided who you’re voting for in November, be prepared to listen with open ears to the other candidate and don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you may—gasp!—agree with one or two of his points.

Similarly, don’t be afraid to laugh at your party of choice—the candidates do. At the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama joked, “Maybe we’ll just send Biden to this thing next year. No, never mind—that’s too risky.” Later in the evening Obama showed a video montage of some of the vice president’s greatest flubs.

It’s OK to admit your party has faults.

Acknowledging when your favorite candidate screws up, makes a mistake or—whoops—doesn’t do their fact-checking homework doesn’t have to make you insecure about your vote.

On the contrary, admitting they can do wrong puts you in a position of power: where you can make a voting decision based off the facts, rather than hype.

19 Comments

Gaberuski

24

Gaberuski commented…

Andrew,

Did I call you a murderer, really? No. Did I call Obama a murderer? No. Obama majorly approves abortion.

I am attaching Abortion to Murder. I'm not name-calling, as you tend to be towards me. I also haven't mentioned anything about the Bible or Christianity. You have some fancy words you've used to call me unintelligent, but for someone so intelligent as yourself I'm baffled you haven't understood the mountain of clear evidence that there is a human life developing and not just "a few cells coming together."

We don't dish out rights to a few cells coming together, but to humans we do. I hope you know it's a human growing in the womb and not something else, it's pure human.

Abortion is allowed up to birth, late-term abortions are still done... and yet when you enter the White House (and are pregnant) you must register the child as present.

Our nation well-knows it's a living human inside, and not a few cells.

84,035

Nancycarm commented…

Great discussion. I hear Heather's point about the importance of having a choice in our actions, as ultimately, even God gives us that freedom.

However, anyone who says they are against abortion must ultimately be willing to ask themselves the hard question:

Why?

Is it because it justmakesus uncomfortable? Or is it becausewe consider it the taking of an innocent life? If so, we are back to the "murder" issue that Gaberuski brings up.

Surely God gives us the freedom to commit all kinds of harmful actions, including murder.In that respect, even God is "pro-choice". I do not, however, think all choices are equal,nor are weobligated to sanction them all as legal.

84,035

guest commented…

The thing that is good to remember is our country is in a stuggle. Will the issue of abortion bring our country out of this massive debt? Most likely not. Will the issue ofthe death penalty bring us out of debt? Most likely not again.I am not saying that issues like thatarenot important because they are and should be something all of us help to inform the country about, but, I am saying that it should not make a candidate more qualified to run our country and dig us out of this massive hole! No matter who wins the election, they have a lot of work to do with the economy and health care, and most likely will not be fully focused on these issues!

Gaberuski

24

Gaberuski commented…

If you have a President who does not recognize the most innocent life in our country, how can we expect him as a leader (with no conviction to over 3,000 abortions a day in the U.S.) to lead us out of one of the greatest struggles in our nation?

I think you're right, issues like the massive debt are important - but you have to ask yourself, what is MORE important?

A LIFE SAVED?

Or money?

There's so many problems it can seem overwhelming, but if we as a people cannot recognize the killing of our own people, than who cares what we do with money?

Reed Benson

23

Reed Benson commented…

I am against abortion, but since I'm convinced that no one on either side is going to do anything about it, I don't let it affect my vote.

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