Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s first debate is Wednesday night. Here are ten tips for getting something out of this and their other two debates.
1. Ignore the “morning line” about how well each candidate is expected to do, what each candidate “needs to accomplish,” and so on. All that chatter is noise in the system—it has nothing to do with anything.
2. Tune in early and watch the pre- and post-debate programming on C-Span. Why C-Span? Before the debate, you’ll get a sense of the setting—what the scene is like, who’s in the audience, and so on. Afterward, you can see how the candidates behave when they think the cameras are off.
3. Are the candidates you see and hear in the debate consistent with their commercials and their opponent’s commercials? If not, disregard the commercials.
It’s the difference between a real experience and an artificial experience. For the first and only time, we get to see the candidates live and side-by-side in three ninety-minute encounters. Perfect? No. Better than what we’ve been getting? Definitely.
4. Trust your ability to size up people when evaluating the candidates. Critics of debates sometimes charge that they’re personality contests. Well, by constitutional design, the presidency is a unitary office. Because “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States,” who these people are matters.
5. Evaluate what you see—body language and facial expressions—as well as what you hear. Lawyers call it “demeanor evidence.” We seem to be hardwired to judge qualities like sincerity and trustworthiness, so why not take advantage of that ability?
6. How well do the candidates handle the unexpected? In 1980 Ronald Reagan crossed the stage to shake Jimmy Carter’s hand. Carter looked like he was about to be mugged. Four years earlier, Carter, like Gerald Ford, stood silently behind his podium when the sound went off for nearly a half hour. Rigidity when things didn't go as programmed turned out to be one of Carter's less helpful qualities in office.
7. When the debate is over, ignore the pundits and polls and make up your own mind. After each debate was over in 1960 the networks went straight to regular programming (including Jackpot Bowling with Milton Berle) instead of punditizing on what it all meant. Pretend it’s 1960.
8. Watch as many of the debates as you can. Debates have different themes, different topics, different formats, all of which help us assess how well the candidates wear over time. In 1992 Ross Perot won the first debate with lots of zippy one-liners. But that’s all he had, and when he trotted out the same lines in subsequent debates, his stock faded.
9. Don’t miss the vice-presidential debate. It’s useful as a way to size up the vice-presidential candidates as vice presidents, as well as to size up the vice-presidential candidates as possible presidents. Also, it tends to be livelier — vice presidential candidates don’t have to worry about seeming presidential.
10. Don’t rely entirely on the debates. All the candidates have records that are deeper and longer than the few hours they spend in debates.