Eight Lessons for the Presidential Debates

What are the key do's and don'ts the candidates should remember when campaigning for the White House?

07 Oct 1960, Washington, DC, USA --- Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon shake hands after their televised debate of October 7, 1960. The two opponents continued their debate after the cameras had stopped. (© Bettmann / CORBIS)

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“Great Communicator” knew how to cut deep with a simple line. Running against the incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan phrased his famous question, “Are you better off now then you were four years ago?” When Reagan told voters to ask themselves that question in his closing remarks – which meant Carter was unable respond on the spot—it sealed the debate as a Reagan victory.

But if you ask the question, as they always tell trial lawyers, make sure you know the answer. It was easy for Reagan: Carter’s four years had been plagued by oil shocks worsened when the Shah fell and the Iran hostage crisis began, recession, and high interest rates intended to drive down inflation.

Lesson 6: Compare Yourself to Titans at Your Own Risk

In the 1988 vice presidential debate, then Vice President Dan Quayle declared that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for President. Quayle was left standing with a “deer-in-the-headlights” look when his opponent, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, verbally undressed him: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

While Quayle’s following protest got lost, the exchange did nothing to alter the outcome. Bush-Quayle easily defeated the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket. But Bentsen, who died in 2006 at 85 and served as Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, had entered the presidential debate pantheon.

Lesson 7: Get Mad and Get Even

Sometimes attacking the messenger when you don’t like the message is a good idea. But that is not what happened in the 1988 debate, when moderator Bernard Shaw asked what Governor Michael Dukakis would do if his wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis didn't attack the question as tasteless and inappropriate.

Instead, Dukakis, already fighting an uphill battle against George H.W. Bush, tepidly replied with a textbook-ish defense of the death penalty. In a campaign in which the governor had already been tagged as being "soft on crime," thanks to the infamous "Willie Horton" advertisement --a reference to a convicted murderer furloughed from a Massachusetts prison who went on to commit rape and assault-- this was most definitely the wrong answer.

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