Monday, November 2, 2015

In Which We Discuss The Scripting Of Debates

Since Kennedy destroyed Nixon in the 1960 Presidential Debate (unless you were listening on the radio, in which case Nixon smashed Kennedy) a great deal of thought has gone into how debates are structured and the subtle details thereof.  Rarely, however, do we get a behind-the-scenes look at how that process works.  At the time of this writing the major contenders for the Republican Presidential Nomination are engaged in a lengthy primary battle and debates are a big part of that; problems with the debate format, and in particular the most recent CNBC debate, have sparked a campaign-revolt against the RNC on the subject of debates.

This morning a letter from Ben Ginsberg, who has been tapped to help the campaign negotiate collectively (an irony that should not go unobserved, given the fervently anti-union position of everyone involved), was leaked to the public.  The letter enumerates the demands that the campaigns wish to make and, while some items are more obvious than others, taken as a whole it reveals a great deal about the debate process and how debates are viewed from within the political machines they serve.  You can find the full letter here at the Washington Post, but I wanted to go through the demands themselves to explore the meaning behind the requests.

Where and when will the debate be held? Pretty standard question, though it factors into planning campaign schedules.  Particularly as we close in on the actual primary season, the candidates aren't going to want to spend a lot of time away from New Hampshire and Iowa.

What is the estimated audience for the debate? Larger audiences are harder to control and make for less personal feeling debates.  Clinton and later Obama both benefitted from "town hall" style debates which featured small audiences, giving the candidates a chance to interact personally with the audience members.

What are criteria for inclusion? If you're running a campaign you want the criteria as narrow as possible while still including you.  A debate is 2+ hours of free air-time for your guy and the less diluted that is the better.  Also, the decision to include or exclude lets the media outlet decide who is and isn't a viable candidate; nothing says "you matter and those other guys don't" more than being included in a debate while your rivals are excluded.  Rest assured that if Trump and Carson could get MSNBC to air a debate with just the two of them they'd be on it in a heartbeat, presumed network of liberal bias or not.

What format do you envision? Different candidates feel more comfortable in different formats.  Podiums and seated debates are better for shorter candidates as they conceal differences in height while town-hall style debates or debates with an open stage allow more ambulatory candidates a chance to walk and talk.  The concern here is that a candidate not look small, elderly, or infirm in comparison to his rivals.

Will it be disseminated on-line? By radio? Etc... Distribution channels address which sections of the electorate will be listening in.  Millennials, for example, are far more likely to watch on-line.  Conservative baby-boomers are far more likely to tune in on the radio.  If the debate fails to serve one of the groups that a candidate is trying to target it may not be in his/her interest to participate.

Who is the moderator? Moderators hold a lot of power in these debates; the camera casts them as the impartial voice of reason. If a moderator takes sides or makes an off-the-cuff decision that benefits one campaign at the expense of another there is very little that anyone can do.  Mitt Romney was famously burned by just such an incident when Candy Crowley more or less declared Obama correct and Romney incorrect in their respective recollections of White House statements following the Benghazi attack.

Will there be any additional questioners? Are they seated? Bringing in additional people to ask questions broadens the pool of people who can hijack the debate proceedings.  It adds some drama to the event but it's risky from the candidates' perspective.  If those people are seated, at least, they lack a physical presence at a microphone or podium and their participation can be gracefully cut short by the moderator or camera stepping or cutting away.

Will there be questions from the audience or social media? How many? How will they be presented to the candidates? Will you acknowledge that you, as the sponsor, take responsibility for all questions asked, even if not asked by your personnel?  Social media terrifies these people.  The propensity for the unexpected, for hidden messages, for things that distract from the carefully choreographed debate media package is too great.  They want this controlled as much as possible while retaining the air of youth and relevance that comes along with it.

What is your proposed length of the debate?  Longer debates annoy people.  Much beyond two hours and the whole process become an intrusion into the audience's lives.  Much shorter and it feels curtailed and inadequate to the purpose.  The candidates want to make themselves look good and that means that the debate itself has to play well with its audience.

Will there be opening and closing statements.  How long will they be?  Opening and closing statements are the most scripted part of the debate.  The candidate knows what they want to say and gets to say in more or less unchallenged.  These are the meat of the messaging that the candidates want to get out of the debates and their prominence and length tell you a lot about how much or how little the candidates themselves really want to be there.

Will you commit to provide equal time/an equal number of questions to each candidate? Jim Webb spent almost all of his time in the most recent Democratic debate being upset about how little time he got in that debate.  Unequal time provides the network a way to have a low criteria for inclusion but still side-line the B-listers.  Obviously those candidates given little time dislike that practice and would rather not grant legitimacy to a debate that they're effectively excluded from by standing mute for two hours.

How long are the answers and rebuttals?  Longer answers call for more nuanced positions but they also give the candidate more wiggle room. This goes to the comparative strength or weakness of the candidates extemporaneous speech.

If a candidate is mentioned, will he/she automatically be called on so they can rebut?  With a multi-candidate format there isn't room for traditional rebuttal.  Asking Donald Trump a question doesn't necessarily mean that Jeb Bush will get a crack at it too and that leaves the door open for Trump to use his time to attack Bush without fear of a rebuttal.  Rules like this make it easier for candidates to defend themselves but they also make equal-time measures less effective.  Carly Fiorina, for example, was literally never mentioned by any other candidates in the CNBC debate, which gave her little extra time and effectively side-lined her.

Will there be a gong/buzzer/bell when time is up?  How will the moderator enforce time limits?  Time limits become pretty meaningless if the moderator has no way of enforcing them.  Candidates with a propensity towards drawn-out answers are wary of particularly jarring enforcement mechanisms, nearly all of which depend on making the candidate look foolish at some level.

Will you commit to not:

  • Ask candidates to raise their hands to answer a question - effective for dealing with large groups of candidates but these poll-style-questions make ready ammunition in the general election when candidates need to appeal to moderate voters rather than the fire-brands and radicals who show up in primary season. 
  • Ask yes/no questions without time to provide a substantive answer - much the same dynamic as the hand-raising questions; these questions offer very little benefit to candidates and really only serve to help voters rule them out.
  • Allow candidate to candidate questioning - the purpose of debates was once to allow interaction between candidates but that has not been true for some time. What comparison is allowed takes place in the minds of the audience; the expense and scope of the campaigns is simply too great for any of them to be comfortable creating the opportunity for a "knock-out punch" in the form of a well-delivered question from an opponent.
  • Allow props or pledges by the candidates - these serve as an indirect means of accomplishing candidate-to-candidate questioning.  
  • Have reaction shots of members of the audience or moderators - reaction shots tell the television audience how to think about what just happened; the selection of which reaction to show puts a lot of power in the hands of the debate director.  
  • Show an empty podium after a break (describe how far away the bathrooms are) - this makes the candidate appear uninterested, disorganized, and un-presidential.  In reality it may well be because it's impossible for everyone to get to and from the bathroom in the time allotted in a break, but the TV audience doesn't know that.
  • Use behind shots of the candidates showing their notes - These can be damaging, particularly in high definition.  Candidate notes may reveal what they're planning to say or suggest weaknesses which they're trying to cover up.  Sarah Palin was embarrassed in 2008 when the transcript of her RNC remarks showed that the teleprompter version of her speech used "new clear" in place of "nuclear" to head-off pronunciation difficulties (she, as well as President George W, Bush, is prone to pronouncing it "nuke-u-ler").
  • Leave microphones on during breaks - this never goes well. Candidates have to be on-message nearly all of the time.  A live mic when a candidate thinks he is able to be candid can end a campaign.  
  • Allow members of the audience to wear political messages (shirts, buttons, etc) - from the candidate's viewpoint, no good can come of this.  A better shot can almost certainly be staged by professionals and the risk of an embarrassing image -- the candidate surrounded by his opponents signs/shirts/etc is quite possible.  Further, a group of people dressed alike or carrying signs can turn the live debate audience into more a a bone of contention that it already is.  Speaking of which...
What is the size of the audience?  Who is receiving tickets in addition to the candidates?  Who is in charge of distributing those tickets and filling the seats? The last thing you want, as a candidate, is a hostile audience. Of course, it's the last thing any of the candidates want so everyone wants strict rules about packing the audience with supporters.  That means that, if the candidates themselves aren't in charge of filling every seat in the hall, they need to trust whomever fills the extras. 

What institutions will you provide to the audience about cheering during the debate? Just like reaction shots, a cheering audience communicates to the folks at home that someone said something good.  A booing audience says they said something bad.  Putting that power in the hands of the audience creates another dimension of the debate to worry about and the candidates would rather entrust debate-spin to their paid professionals.

What are the plans for the lead-in to the debate  (pre-shot video?  Announcer to moderator?  Director to moderator?) and how long is it?  Lead in brands the network and not the candidates and sets expectations for the debate.  Shorter lead-ins cut into candidate time less and make the event more appealing but shots of the stage as the candidates find their way to the podiums, unless carefully choreographed, can risk yet more embarrassingly unscripted moments. 

What type of microphones (lavs or podium) - Podium mics teather the candidates to the podiums and prevent them from walking around which can be a concern for older or shorter candidates who might prefer to stay behind their podium.  Podium mics are also much less likely to be a problem in breaks and down time as the candidate need only step away  from them.  They do, however, obstruct visuals somewhat and may cause the candidate to have to lean in, which may be an undesired look.

Can you pledge that the temperature in the hall be kept below 67 degrees? - It's hot under those lights and skin color tells us a lot.  A candidate who is sweating or looks flushed may be viewed as not being good under pressure.  A cool debate hall makes everyone look better.

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