From June through October of a presidential election year, a small group of experts serve as trainers, coaches, and writers for the gladiatorial spectacles that are the presidential and vice-presidential debates. This year’s face-offs—the first in Denver on October 3—offer one of the last chances to change the race’s dynamics before the November 6 election.
Debate preppers must create a comprehensive and hard-to-debunk yet readable compilation of all policy issues the candidate might get asked about. When I worked on debate prep for the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2004, I mused that this universe might be as large as 40,000 questions. Gary Edson, who had also done debate work for the 2000 Bush campaign, added: “Forty thousand potential questions, but there are only 40 answers.”
In addition, preppers “watch tape” like football coaches. Some act as substitute opponents or media questioners. Many iconic moments in debate history originated in debate prep, including Lloyd Bentsen’s devastating reply to Dan Quayle—“You’re no Jack Kennedy”—and George W. Bush’s firm stand in the face of Al Gore’s bizarre lunge toward the Texas governor.
This time, the stand-ins for the debate will be Senator Rob Portman, playing President Obama for Mitt Romney, and Senator John Kerry, playing Romney for the President’s sessions. The roles require policy smarts, political savvy, deftness with the media, and the psychoanalytic ability of a motivational speaker. Here are some of the lessons history provides.
1. Debate prep really matters. President Gerald Ford began the process of serious preparation in 1976. Jimmy Carter mocked the concept: “I am not going to go off and practice against a dummy opponent or memorize any cute speeches or anything like that.” By 1980, though, according to debate historian Alan Schroeder, Carter had dropped his objections. He did a full-on session at Camp David, bringing in California political scientist Samuel Popkin to play Ronald Reagan.
2. Make sure the answers make real-world sense. Unfortunately for Ford, his prep session may not have helped. In the debate with Carter, Ford claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, an answer that hurt him. According to Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger, during the practice session, Henry Kissinger aide William Hyland had pressed Ford on this very issue. Isaacson writes that the answer the National Security Council had prepared in Ford’s debate book didn’t differ greatly from the one that ended up flummoxing the President and paralyzing his campaign during a crucial pre-election stretch.
3. Know your opponent. Ohio congressman Dennis Eckart, the stand-in for Quayle in Bentsen’s prep, listened carefully to Quayle’s campaign speeches, including a reference to how he and JFK were of similar ages during their runs. According to Schroeder, Eckart tried the line on Bentsen in a prep session and Bentsen shot back: “You’re no more like Jack Kennedy than George Bush is like Ronald Reagan,” a version of what became his famous line.
Inside the George W. Bush 2000 camp, Portman, the Gore stand-in, had seen the Vice President approach his opponent in his debate against Bill Bradley and filed the scene away. During a mock debate, Portman says, he did the same to then-governor Bush, getting right up in his face. The room broke into laughter and Bush even broke character, kissing Portman on the head and saying, “Rob, he’ll never do that.” Portman replied: “I’ll bet he will.” Portman was right. As he described it, “[Gore] did it, and Bush handled it beautifully.” Gore came right at Bush, but Bush dismissed him with a perplexed look and a dismissive nod. Bush’s cool demeanor won plaudits from audience and pundits alike.
4. You can’t change your candidate. In 1988, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis assembled an all-star roster of preppers, including Robert Squier, Susan Estrich, Ted Sorensen, and now-Obama national-security adviser Tom Donilon, as well as cameos by Bill Bradley, Mario Cuomo, and Bill Clinton. However, even that assemblage of Democratic superheroes failed to save Dukakis from his technocratic impulses.
When CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked in the debate if Dukakis’s anti-death-penalty view would change if his wife were raped and murdered, Dukakis should have been prepared. According to Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, Dukakis’s briefing book featured a tough anti-crime answer as one of six “mandatory points” he was to make. It called for Dukakis to refer to his late father’s mugging and his brother’s death in a hit-and-run accident. Neither of these humanizing points made it into Dukakis’s answer, which seemed heartless and included a weak call for a multinational drug summit.
5. Don’t pull punches. Portman also ended up doing prep work for Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004 and Senator John McCain in 2008. The key to being an effective stand-in, Portman says, is to be so tough that “the candidate and his family really don’t like you.” In fact, Cindy McCain walked out of one of his Obama-channeling attacks, telling him later, “I was about to throw something at you.”
Of course, you have to wonder how sympathetic any good debate prepper really is. A sign hanging in Portman’s office from the 2000 Danville, Kentucky, Dick Cheney/Joe Lieberman debate is inscribed by Cheney: “Rob, you were much tougher than my opponent.”
This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.