In the past I have been asked to give my thoughts on the communication styles of certain public figures. There is no better place to observe a person’s tics, tone and relatability than a Presidential debate.
(This smile says “I’m very uncomfortable”)
Debates are rarely moments when we learn important policy information or get a transparent look into what people really think. What we do learn is how we feel about the candidates.
Pundits and journalists will often talk about “the narrative” of a political campaign (so much so that it pretty much kills the meaning of the word for other things). What they mean is that there is a story that the candidate wants told about him/her and one that the opponent wants told. Each campaign is fighting for supremacy of their story.
For example, in 2004 the Bush campaign was trying to paint John Kerry as a “flip-flopper” who couldn’t be trusted to make the hard decisions. This impression would benefit the Bush narrative that he was “the decider.” Then Kerry came out during a debate and said this:
“I actually did vote for the $87 billion (wartime funding bill) before I voted against it.”
That and this photograph was all it took to make him seem less serious:
(because apparently the majority of America doesn’t windsurf)
George H.W. Bush was attacked on the narrative that the economy was suffering because he was disengaged. That feeling was cemented by this moment in the debates:
Whatever the case, candidates see the debates as a way to either solidify their positives or reinforce the negatives of their opponents. These debates between Hillary and Donald will be no different.
What to watch for:
Donald wants us to know that he is a successful business man who isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is.” He wants us to feel like he is the only solution to any problem that we may face.
In my opinion, the stickiest negative narrative is that he is both unpredictable and racist. (In his defense, he doesn’t seem to care too much about people thinking this about him.)
She wants us to feel that she is the most qualified for the position. Her temperament and her experience are the keys to her success. (Her team will also want to capitalize on being the first woman nominee, but that is difficult to gracefully work into the debate. She almost needs to draw attention to it by not drawing any attention to it.)
In my opinion, the stickiest negative narrative is that she is not truthful and she is physically fragile.
As you watch the debate, look for the ways that each candidate might try to goad the other. The best example of this is when Chris Christie took out Marco Rubio in one of the debates by mocking his robotic answers to questions. Rubio responded by repeating his usual talking points in the same tone as always, playing exactly into Christie’s point.
The danger of this kind of play is that it can be a kamikaze moment on stage, as it was for Christie who took Rubio down with him in the polls. Don’t expect to see that happen with only two candidates on stage.
Instead, I expect to see Hillary try to get Donald to say something outrageous about Muslims or women. Donald will have been coached to be civil and “presidential” (which I take to mean less crazy) during the debate and I think he will hold off on taking any bait from Hillary (people rarely do at these things). He might, however, give some off-the-cuff crazy response to one of the questions from the moderator, which would accomplish Hillary’s goal.
Expect to see Donald play the alpha male on stage. He will break the “plane” of the podium, showing that he is not afraid to be bigger than the box, and he will most likely address anyone in the audience as a way to show how comfortable he is connecting. These traits were used to great effect against the other Republican candidates, but I am not sure how it will be read on a stage with just Hillary. The danger for his campaign is that it might create sympathy for her.
Watch for Donald showing his bottom teeth. This is a classic sign of aggression and power (once you see it happen, you can’t un-see it in all the alpha-male leaders out there). He will show it when he smiles sometimes, but mostly when he talks. If he does it too much, it can give the impression of being a bully, which is something that I actually believe plays well with his base but will most likely turn off the independent voters who want to see him play nice.
Watch for Hillary’s smile. When she is comfortable and feels like she knows what to expect, she will relax her eyes a little and smile in a genuinely warm way. If she feels attacked or senses that she is being asked a question that is a trap, her eyes will become distant and her lips will purse into a tighter smile. The more physically tense she is, the harder it will be for her to stay away from the negative narrative.
Finally, Hillary needs to make fun of herself. If she can make a joke at her own expense and create the impression that she has a sense of humor, she will go a long way to getting people to like her. For example, if she began her remarks with “And I really hope that you have some questions in there about those emails…” This may seem like a risk, but she knows that she is going to be asked (every single time) and she might as well accept it and enjoy it.
Donald’s biggest strength is that he doesn’t seem to care about losing. He is the opposite of calculating. He is 100% reactive. My guess is that if he just stays good-natured and doesn’t try to eviscerate Hillary, that he will come across as “likable.” The problem for him and his team is that no one seems to know exactly how he will behave. Worst case scenario for him is that he comes out trying to show that he can contain the crazy, only to make him look crazier.