The first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign is about
to take place in Cleveland, Ohio where ten of the leading
candidates for the Republican nomination (as measured by
an amalgam of the latest public opinion polls) will take the
stage at a local arena, and appear before the national TV
The seven announced candidates who don’t make the cut
have been invited to appear in a second debate prior to the
main one. Some have objected to this as arbitrary and unfair,
but it is I think the fairest solution to the difficulty of
having so many candidates on the stage. As it is, ten figures
debating are “too many’ for a real debate, but those are the
circumstances of the 2016 campaign.
The 2016 campaign so far has been almost a completely
media-centered process, with various presidential hopefuls
taking turns to try and get favorable media coverage. With
so-called “front-running” candidates understandably acting
and speaking cautiously (so as not to jeopardize their lead),
this has provided opportunity for lower-tier candidates to
grab some attention in both parties’ contests.
This is exactly what happened. Senator Bernie Sanders of
Vermont has captured some momentum in the Democratic
race, and businessman Donald Trump has done the same in
the GOP race.
With the beginning of the debates (on the GOP side only for
now), voters across the nation will, for the first time, see the
candidates side by side. It won’t be a “true” debate, of course,
but it will enable many voters to form their first impressions
of the candidates in the context of the other candidates.
As in the media process, the goal for each candidate is to get
noticed, but the strategies being put forward by some
political observers and consultants might not be the most
important. Those strategies include being flamboyant and
This nomination process in both parties is going to be a long
process. First impressions are important, but resilience,
stature, coolness under fire, and communication skills will
be observed over many months before voters make their
The media will make the most of any quips, retorts and
other “gotcha” moments in the debate, but I suggest that the
most successful debaters will be those who communicate
that they are in command of their subjects when they answer
questions, and who are in command of the stage when they
are speaking. This will do their cause, in the long run, more
than any contender who simply seeks ‘sensational” moments.
Flubs, of course, don’t help (as Governor Rick Perry learned
in 2012), but too much caution can easily turn off viewers
who are looking for the candidates to engage with each other.
In the end, voters are looking to observe the “character” of
the contestants, but this notion of character is in a context of
how someone would perform as the chief executive of the
nation. Moreover, voters will be deciding over the course of the
debates and the whole campaign which of the candidates is
someone they want to see and hear every day for the next four
The best course for anyone in the debates is therefore foremost
to be themselves and to reveal their personal strengths. Most of
the media, especially the broadcast media, will focus on the
surface of the debate and its most sensational moments. They
will be less interested in “character,” and more interested in
the debate performance. That performance is, of course, of
interest, but I suggest that voters will, consciously or not, be
looking beyond any debate techniques, and “gotcha” moments.
They will be looking for their next president, and considering the
challenges and problems that will face that next president, that
search is as important as it has ever been in the lifetime of
anyone reading this.
Let the debates begin!
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.