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Indiana University

Lenkowski and DeLong on Presidential Debates

October 1, 2012
Bloomington, Indiana --

Advice for the candidates

Brian DeLong

Brian DeLong

The debates may offer a unique and enticing platform for voters who are overwhelmed by campaign ads or pundit-driven inflammatory discourse, says Brian DeLong, lecturer in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the IU Bloomington debate coach. As such, he offers the following advice to the candidates:


  • Stay on message -- "At least for the first debate, if Romney can hit his stump speech remarks on the economy, health care and governance, he will walk away a winner," DeLong said. By staying on message, the debates will function as confirmation that Romney has a presidential ethos that indicates he can clearly handle pressure. But he shouldn't just rehash old speeches. DeLong suggests introducing a vetted "wild-card" issue that can spark post-debate discussion.
  • Balance targeted and broad-appeal messages -- Romney will need maximum turnout in November, so he will need to reinvigorate enthusiasm among the base. He can also help his ground game by targeting key voters with responses that poll well with these groups. But balance is necessary. "With the circulation of the 47 percent video, Romney will need to have broad appeals to all Americans to undermine criticism that he represents a minority."
  • Likability -- Romney needs to lock into and embody compassion for those who are hurting, the anger of those who are frustrated and the hope people have for a future under his leadership. "If observers can walk away saying that he was authentic in his responses, that he truly cares, the campaign will benefit greatly," DeLong said. "If Romney is overly irritated or displays forced and misplaced emotion, it may confirm his current standing in the polls."


  • Prepare for weaknesses -- Obama must convince undecided voters that the economic situation is better as a result of his efforts, that he knows a path forward and that the administration has their best economic interest in mind. And he must avoid sounding professorial and condescending. "Especially in debates, details of policy do not always matter," DeLong said. "I expect Obama will deploy one or two new narratives of economic success stories."
  • Play to tie -- Obama should avoid attempts to "dominate" or "defeat" Romney. The worst-case scenario would be a self-inflicted wound, such as a clear factual inaccuracy that will take over the news cycle. Since the Oct. 3 debate will focus on the economy, Obama must have specific data points about core economic issues prepared.
  • Voter turnout -- Obama won the 2008 election with a massive grassroots campaign, but enthusiasm from minority and youthful voters may be lower this year. "Obama could be well served by reinvigorating the 'incomplete' project of certain core liberal rights issues to force Romney to take a position," DeLong said. "Discussing abortion, immigration and student debt, if done with tact, could be a low-risk strategy that could keep commitment levels high."
Debates usually have little impact
Leslie Lenkowski

Leslie Lenkowsky

  • The most important thing to keep in mind about the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates is that they are not really debates, says Leslie Lenkowsky, clinical professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. These quadrennial events are more like carefully staged -- and rehearsed -- press conferences. The amount of new information the debates provide voters is usually small.
  • "That may be why, in the five decades in which they have been held, hardly any of the debates has had much impact on the outcome of our national elections," Lenkowsky said. "The first one, featuring John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, was thought at the time to have shifted momentum toward the Massachusetts senator, partly because his Republican opponent looked tired and drained under the glare of the television lights. But studies have subsequently cast doubt on that.
  • "Since then, memorable moments have been scarce and ones that changed the course of an election virtually unknown. According to most observers, Ronald Reagan is the only candidate who turned potential defeat into victory as a result of a strong debate performance just one week before the election. But of course, Reagan had far more experience in front of a camera than the typical office-seeker."
  • For the Romney-Ryan ticket, this history is not good news, Lenkowsky added. With polls showing the Republicans trailing, both nationally and in key battleground states, the likelihood that they will be able to use the debates to overcome the gap is small.
  • "They will probably try to respond to the questions that have arisen about how a Romney administration might govern, hoping to remain competitive and set the stage for a frenetic last two weeks of campaigning," he said. "However, the debate format is not conducive to detailing policy positions.
  • "For the Obama administration, the goal will be to avoid making a potentially disastrous blunder. Despite high levels of public disapproval and concern about the country's future, President Obama and Vice President Biden have managed to get themselves in position to be re-elected, but their margin for error is not large. As they have been doing all year, they will try to follow the old adage that the best defense is a good offense and go after their Republican opponents. But the questioners may not allow them to do so and force them to defend their record of the past four years."
  • Lenkowsky's main research focus is on nonprofits and public policy, civil society in comparative perspective, volunteering and civic engagement, and social entrepreneurship. He developed and teaches a course on communications in public affairs.