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10 Tips on How to Win a Presidential Debate

Sep 27th, 2008

The first 2008 US presidential debate (link ) was very interesting to watch because winning the debate was very important for both parties as the results of polls are so tight.

Before the debate Republicans called for postponing. Many took this as a sign of weakness. But has it really been so?

Here are top tips on how to win a debate, as we could see from a man who has the greatest resources on the planet dedicated to that job.

1. Play on compassion

Rarely you will see a compassionate politician, but campaign is an excellent opportunity to remind the voters you are made of flesh and blood.

McCain opens the debate by mentioning Kennedy in hospital and wishing him well. Through many other occasions he mentions his love and thoughts for veterans.

Obama on the other hand shows no compassion, and uses almost technically precise language that is foreign to most of the voters. At one moment he even says that "they will capture and kill Bin Laden". Saying you will kill someone on the air is a capital error especially true for an aspiring president.

McCain starting out with news of Kennedy in hospital

2. Ignore your opponent

Pretending your opponent does not exist is an important strategy in a confrontational debate. It shows you are not interested in what your opponent has to say, as if their opinion is not important. This tactic can even inspire aggressive behavior and mistakes on opponent's end.

McCain plays this tactic masterfully, and Obama was desperate for an eye contact. But during the whole length of the debate (90 minutes) McCain did not give him a single glance, always looking straight at the camera, the host or his papers.

McCain ignores Obama throughout the whole debate

3. Never defend yourself

Instead use more attacks on the opponent.

Obama was caught in this game and spent most of the debate defending himself of McCain's attacks. He more often said "That is not true" to the camera then any other phrase in the debate.

On the other hand, McCain would simply ignore even the most direct and harshest allegations, pretending he didn't hear them. If you want people to forget something bad about you, just bury it. True for any affair, so true for politics.

4. Never acknowledge your opponent's success

Saying you agree with something your opponent said does not help you at all, and it only makes them look better.

Obama made a mistake of repeatedly agreeing with McCain's statement. He dug himself even more by using strongest of the phrases like "Senator McCain is absolutely right" or "I give senator McCain great credit".

McCain never came even close to acknowledge any of Obama's thoughts.

(update: day after the debate Republicans have already produced an ad emphasizing this)

5. Hold to your prepared speech

Although the questions were not known before the debate, the topics were and both candidates were well prepared.

McCain refused to give answer to any of the direct questions by Obama and instead just kept to the prepared speeches for the topics. He knows there is no point on reinventing the wheel, when the experts already prepared him the most optimal lines beforehand.

Obama, while clearly more technically and on-the-spot intelligent then McCain, often showed nervousness and lack of fluency in his speech as he tried to give his honest opinion on the matter. While certainly more valuable, the last thing a presidential candidate wants to show on the air is insecurity.

6. Keep smiling

Smiling is very important part of winning the vote.

Obama takes matters too seriously. As grim as the situation really is, the voters will always prefer comfort to caution.

Although McCain uses artificial smiles, he uses them straight to the camera and often even overdoes them.

McCain smiles to cameras while Obama speaks

7. Avoid sarcasm

Sarcasm is the sign of intelligence, but not recognized as a sign of leadership the voters look for.

While McCain remains stone cold at all accusations, Obama reacts to accusations with a sarcastic smile, often looking at the floor. For some people sarcasm is also a sign of lack of self confidence.

8. Self confidence

Calmness and self confidence

are signs of great leaders.

While McCain remains calm and confident during the entire debate (reciting prepared speech helps a lot with that), Obama often has to employ excessive body language like waving hands to make his point. Waving hands usually gives an impression that you are not confident your words will do the job.

Obama uses his hands excessively while speaking

9. Win "Who is your daddy" game

Debates always have mini "Who is your daddy" games played among the candidates to show who is stronger.

Here are some examples.

McCain never looked towards Obama from the moment they shook hands to the ending of the debate (the 'ignoring' game). Obama on the other hand, looks and listens carefully to McCain while he talks, and the viewer sees a careful listener there but also a glimpse of a student-teacher relationship, something you do not want if you are presidential candidate.

Or, at the beginning of the show, you can see Obama walking towards McCain with his hand already open for a shake while McCain awaits last moment to do so.

Obama walks towards McCain with his hand open for a shake

At the end of the show, Obama is shaking McCain almost passionately. He even puts his other hand on McCain which is often a sign of a weaker position and respect for the other side. McCain does not show any signs of that.

Obama puts his arm on McCain

10. Finish with compassion

Just like it's important to begin with, finishing the debate with compassion plays important role in wining votes.

While Obama tried to touch it with a mention of his origins in Kenya, McCain made a much stronger point using veteran issues as a starting point ". when I came home from prison [in Vietnam]".


This debate was easily won by McCain scoring ten out of ten, and I think he laughed at how unprepared Obama was for such a serious mission. I know many had already jumped to say how Obama had much more to say then McCain but here is the catch. Most of the voters still do not care where Iraq or Pakistan are, or what a global financial crisis is, and it is actually more important the way you say it then what you have to say. Those signs of potence will be recognized by a common man as values of a stronger leader, and that is all that counts when it comes to election.

I have to say McCain's campaign people are top notch for the job. I think they set Obama up with a stunt to delay the debate which sent a signal they were not ready for the debate. But they clearly were and it was only a bait that Obama's people took. They rushed for the debate, taste of victory in their mouths, obviously forgetting important debate lessons in the process.

In politics there are no rules. This should be first lesson learned at law schools. The way this campaign unfolded shows masterful knowledge of a political campaign theory by the republican party. Having Palin as vice president was a vote swinging choice. Hockey mom who defends foreign policy knowledge by proximity of Alaska and Russia may be a laughable choice for many intellectuals, but I would have to dig back in the history to find the last intellectual who was a leader of a country. Times change. (update: they did make a great mistake afterward, they should not let her speak).

Here is a personal thought from someone standing thousands of miles from a very hot grounds that are US today. US Congress may pass the proposed $700bn to bailout the corporate crooks. How come it never occurred to them to bail out more then five million Americans without health insurance - a much useful prospect in every aspect? Is that really the reality of US today and is it likely that either candidate has the will and power to change that?

And without too much hope of seeing really forward thinking people like democrat Dennis Kucinich or (ex) republican Lincoln Chafee actually making it for the USA presidental race in the near future, I only hope that who ever gets elected, pays much more attention to this planet and living beings inhabiting it, than his predecessor.

Category: Taxes

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