It’s not debatable: Conaty’s 10 tips for keeping score

31 Oct

To debate or not debate? That is the question. Front-runners never like to debate, or at least not on TV or in front a large audience. Make a mistake and—swoosh—there goes the lead. On the other hand, the underdog sees an opportunity to make up lost ground in a hurry.

Whether we like it or not, political debates are here to stay. They have been a fixture in campaigns since Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. The stakes got raised with Nixon/JFK 50 years ago in Chicago, which proved style can beat debate competence. John Kennedy won a good many votes due to his appearance. Richard Nixon, however, lost a lot of votes, because he was terribly ill, had a bad back and refused to wear makeup. Despite this, experts say Nixon really won the actual debate, but Kennedy went on to win the presidency.

In fact, there are many things to look for in political debates. Candidates can score many points without winning arguments and, perhaps most important for them, emerge with the best sound bites and video clips. To help sort it out, here is Jack Conaty, former WFLD-TV (Fox Chicago) political editor and frequent debate participant, with 10 tips for spectators:

1. Pivot points. Candidates will avoid answering a question by steering the conversation back towards a talking point. This is the closest you will get to the politicians’ true colors come through. A good moderator will interrupt the candidate and stop this from happening.

2. And speaking of moderators: If he or she is somehow biased, short-tempered or unwilling to clarify complicated political terms or topics to the public, the debate is being communicated deficiently. If the moderator is consistently giving the same treatment to each candidate; interrupting when necessary; keeping the debate focused on the central topic or question and explaining difficult terminology or topics; the debate is going great.

3. Relevancy: Is the discourse meaningful to the office? The governor of Illinois isn’t going to have much influence on the United States-Mexican border. The Cook County Treasurer is not going to make decisions on teaching evolution in schools.

4. Body language. The candidates’ ability to keep it under control are good signs. Sweating, stuttering, swaying eye contact, flinching, or any other physical expressions of frustration would be bad indicators.

5. Not a good sign: A candidate spending more time criticizing his opponent than he does offering solutions.

6. Also not a good sign: A candidate using the forum to explain past actions, or quell rumors and criticism—whether it’s Sarah Palin trying to suppress her comments about how she could see Russia from her backyard, or Christine O’Donnell claiming she isn’t a witch.

7. Thinking on your feet: The candidates will be thrown for a loop during a debate. Perhaps it is the mediator snapping them back to the question after the candidate went off on a tangent, or perhaps it was a dig at his or her policy, the reaction of any candidate is crucial. Coming back too strong would suggest over-aggressiveness, and coming back too subtly would suggest reluctance, which could lose supporters.

8. Overlap: Does the candidate begin to answer a question by addressing a previous statement made by the opponent? Not a good sign.

9. Does the candidate make eye contact with his opponent? Is he debating the moderator, or is he debating the other candidate?

10. Does the candidate offer solutions with any specificity whatsoever?

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