Just a simple question in 1988 from debate moderator Bernard Shaw tripped up then-Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"
Ignoring the emotional impact of the inquiry, Dukakis launched into his standard opposition to capital punishment and missed the chance to tell voters how he would personally react to such a horrific act, thus failing to empathize with Americans who've lost loved ones to violent crime.
Such moments in a presidential debate reveal the opportunities and pitfalls awaiting President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, as well as their running mates, in the debate tonight and the three others to follow this month. For the candidates and their anticipated television audience of up to 50 million, here are six key rules:
Don't take questions too literally. As the Dukakis example illustrates, sometimes questions are designed not just to illuminate a policy viewpoint but also to serve as a lens into the character of the office-seeker. Dukakis' cool and analytical answer revealed a mentality that was not well-suited for the emotional question being asked.
Presidential elections are personal choices for Americans. The ability to understand pain and hardship, and deal with emotional topics, is an important part of how voters connect to candidates.
It's the body language, stupid. Many people focus too much on the verbal aspects of candidate response and ignore non-verbal features. Voters take clues from body language, facial gestures and eye movements.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush forgot and casually took a look at his watch. It made the president look as if he didn't want to be there and would prefer the whole thing be over sooner rather than later. Al Gore discovered in 2000 that smirking at his opponent conveyed arrogance and didn't endear him to viewers. His sighs and gestures became a part of the narrative of why George W. Bush outperformed him.
Expectations are as important as performance. Much of the assessment of the candidates will depend on how Obama and Romney do relative to how people expect them to perform. It is better to beat low expectations than underperform high expectations. Before the debate, campaign staff will jockey to set expectations for Romney low because he is challenging an incumbent president and has not been a very strong campaigner. Obama's staff, meanwhile, will argue that the president has less experience because he has engaged in zero debates since 2008, compared with 20 for Romney.
Humor helps. Humor can defuse awkward responses or take the edge off of partisan conflict. As Lloyd Bentson demonstrated with his "you are no Jack Kennedy" jab at Dan Quayle during their vice presidential debate, as with Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" rejoinder to Jimmy Carter, or as with Walter Mondale's "where's the beef" attack on Gary Hart, sharp one-liners often become the most memorable part of campaign debates. They dominate news coverage and shape how reporters interpret the debate and how voters remember it.
If you are going to make three points, don't forget the third. Rick Perry made debate history when he was asked to name three federal agencies he would abolish. He forgot the third agency. Even playful hints from Ron Paul did nothing to jog his memory.
Don't ignore the Twitter/Facebook effects. As we saw during the political conventions, many people will tweet or post Facebook comments during the debates. Voter judgments will depend not just on the debate, but also on the live views of voters from across the country in real time. Social media judgment will be as important as what commentators and reporters have to say. If you don't believe that, just ask Clint Eastwood.
Darrell West is the director and vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
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