Boston Globe Webinar Delves Into Presidential Debate Strategy

September 29, 2020 by Sara Wilkerson
(Commission on Presidential Debates)

Tonight’s debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is the candidates’ first, and perhaps best chance to define the rest of the election, according to a panel of seasoned political advisors assembled by the Boston Globe.

Monday’s webinar focused on presidential debate strategies of the past and how President Trump has upended campaign norms.

Moderated by Boston Globe columnists Scot Lehigh and Joan Vennochi, the session opened with a discussion of debate preparations and differences this year, thanks largely to the coronavirus pandemic.

Stephanie Cutter, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Edward Kennedy, discussed the debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush.

“Debates are one of the few times you can change the topic of the election, it was critical of us [Kerry’s campaign] to do that [at the time].” 

Cutter recalled that one of the presidential debates was centered solely on the topic of national security, but said her team prepped Kerry to discuss the economy despite the limitations imposed on the debate topics ahead of time. 

Panelist David Wade, a former adviser to John Kerry and Joe Biden, said he believed this year’s debates will have a different backdrop from those of past elections. 

“The very nature of COVID has changed how both teams have had to prepare,” said Wade. 

Vennochi directed the conversation towards debate strategy and what candidates should do during their performances. 

When asked by Vennochi what former Vice President Joe Biden should do in handling the disruptive tactics employed by President Trump, Cutter replied, “Trump is a one-trick pony… I think Biden is ready for this [debate]. 

“What I would tell him [Biden] is don’t get sucked in by that rabbit hole [of disruption] …. You’re not talking to Trump…” and Cutter went further to say that Biden needs to convey his message to the American public. 

“In terms of fact-checking… he [Biden] needs something to shut that down and stop Trump,” Cutter concluded. 

Keeping the conversation on Biden, Vennochi asked Cutter and Wade what the Democratic candidate needed to do to “win” the debate. 

Cutter replied, “I think in the end they [Trump’s team] lowered expectations for Biden… What bar does he have to meet? He has to be himself.” 

Wade offered advice for Biden ahead of the presidential debates by stating that Biden needs to “Keep it [the debate] as a referendum” on key issues such as leadership. 

“The bar will be set by the audiences [of the debates]. Often how audiences handle debates is how comfortable they are with the candidate that speaks to them,” continued Wade. 

Wade went on to say that body language and stage presence of the candidates also factor into how audiences perceive each debater. 

When asked by the moderators about the media’s responsibility in reporting the substance of presidential debates, Wade noted the media condenses the debates into “moments” that end up shaping public perception of who “won” and “lost” the debate. 

Cutter recounted the time that she worked with Wade on the 2012 presidential debates for then-incumbent Barack Obama. 

Cutter said that the first debate between Obama and Sen. Mitt Romney was “a disaster” for her team, however, noted that the second debate was not thanks to one of the “moments” the media highlighted in its coverage the next day. 

When it comes to debate preparations, Cutter said that it is the campaign staffers’ job to know how to “differentiate your candidate from the other guy.” Cutter explained that for the second 2012 debate, Obama managed to differentiate himself from Romney during an off-script moment about pensions and foreign investments. 

Cutter explained that when Obama said, “I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours,” in response to Romney’s pressure on the matter, the moment allowed for Obama to be seen as a, “champion of the little guy,” as opposed to Romney who was not. 

Wade said that he will be interested in seeing how Trump behaves during the debate with Biden. 

“It is out of character for Trump to portray himself as calm,” Wade said. 

The debate this week will be moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News. 

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