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Why It's Impossible To Win A Debate

The media and the people want different things. Attack? Or make people like you?


When they take the stage in Denver on Wednesday night, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will have to appeal to two distinct debate audiences, with at times opposing needs: the media, and the actual viewers.

Goal one is winning the "media" version of a debate, achievable through memorable “moments,” sizzling confrontations, and “making news.” Want to dominate the TV news packages and internet wrap-ups? Unleash a zippy zinger or gimmick that can be recounted in 20 seconds (or 140 characters or less). Want to get the fourth estate buzzing? Issue a new attack — or piece of opposition research — during the affair that reporters haven’t seen before.

To this end, satisfying the viral, hyper-speed media beast hinges less on a thorough 90-minute performance, in which you’ve carefully prosecuted your case, and more on the quick recounting of the night. (Does anyone remember what kind of evening George H.W. Bush had before he was caught looking at his watch? While viewers at the time didn’t seem to care very much about it, it became a media sensation.)

Inside a campaign, you prep your candidate for days, running him or her through every imaginable question (“Is there anything nice you’d say about your opponent?”) or attack (ever since Rick Lazio’s 2000 gambit, nearly every consultant of a leading candidate preps their client on how to respond if the opponent presents them with a pledge to sign). And, in a best-case, miraculous scenario, they hit every answer just as you hoped.

But even with all that going right, it’s likely to get lost in the chatter, if there’s one small second — often one that no one noticed at the time — that becomes the media moment.

Campaigns are keenly aware of this. In the Clinton war room in 2008, many of us watched the debates with the explicit purpose of trying to figure out which exchange we’d claim to the press was the media “moment” of the debate. As soon as it happened we’d cut a clip, put it on Youtube, and then blast it to reporters as the debate was ending, declaring it their game-changer.

When I worked for the Obama campaign in the general election, there was one instance in which we didn’t even wait that long for such a declaration.

When John McCain angrily called Obama “that one” in a debate on October 7, campaign spokesman Bill Burton instantly blasted an email to reporters, asking: "Did John McCain just refer to Obama as 'that one'?"

Campaigns do this because they know that when newscasts (or even, many cable shows) cover the debate, they often play just one or two quick clips. The candidate who gets the most favorable clip played in that news package, is often the one who “wins” the debate – the other 89 minutes be damned.

Beyond the positive stories you get from a media “win,” come other attendant benefits. For one, it means your opponent is on defense with the press for days, during which he’ll have trouble transmitting his preferred message to voters (read: lost opportunity cost). And, such a story then leads to other self-fulfilling narratives, like “Romney is knocked out” or “Romney turns it around,” changing the media dynamics of the race. Given a choice between having to deal with such a media-induced headache, or making the other side do it, campaigns face an easy preference.

Meanwhile, in appealing directly to viewers of the debate, campaigns have different, sometimes warring, goals from those aimed at satisfying the media beast.

For one, while the media may thrive on combat (somewhere the late Lloyd Bentsen is looking down on Twitter and thinking what could’ve been!), a candidate aiming to win the “viewers” debate wants to be seen as likeable. So, while Mitt Romney is being advised by a malange of media voices to swing for the seats and tear the president apart, he might take notice of the 2000 debate, in which Al Gore’s unrelenting critique of George W. Bush preceded a precipitous decline in voter opinion of him.

Another difference between the “media” debate and the “viewers” debate is that where the media lives off of news (i.e., new, previously unreported developments), the average viewer of a presidential debate has not been paying as much attention to the campaign previously. Consequently, debate messages don’t necessarily have to be new to be effective with viewers. Indeed, it’s in the candidates’ interest to reiterate the biggest critiques or flaws of their opponents as much as possible during the debate, even if they aren’t new. Because they will be to many of the people watching.

When I was a consultant advising a statewide candidate not long ago, his leading opponent in the Democratic primary had not voted for many years and until recently had been a registered Republican. In every debate where our candidate got to ask an opponent a question, we had him ask her to explain these apostasies, making sure to use the question to convey the facts in excruciating detail (eg, “You were living in the swing state of Pennsylvania in 2000 during Gore-Bush….”).

After awhile the question was predictable, the media hated it, and the opponent was able to answer it relatively well. But that wasn’t the point. The goal was for our guy merely to inform viewers just tuning in, of the facts of her voting and registration histories. Our polling showed that if Democratic primary voters knew this information about her, they became extremely turned off. And we couldn’t assume they’d know it simply because he’d said it before.

Think of the Super Bowl. During the NFL’s championship game, broadcasters notoriously speak in far more rudimentary ways about the game, knowing that many viewers are not football fanatics but simply culturally-attuned Americans who haven’t followed the sport all season. So, during the big game you get elementary explanations of what off-sides is, or why Eli Manning wants to avoid being intercepted — knowledge that would often be taken for granted and left unmentioned with a regular season audience.

Similarly, the viewing audiences at debates may not know about how the candidates reacted to the Embassy attack in Libya, or whatever gaffe du jour an opponent may want them to consider. The press — who may have memorized every word of the “47 percent” transcript and already tweeted about “bumps in the road” 37 times — may be bored by hearing about them all night. But debates are a prime opportunity to inform these less-engaged voters of the key messages — positive and negative — you want them to know (in other words, the time to explain off-sides rules to the casual football viewer, as it may be the only game he tunes in to all season).

In the end, the “viewer” and “media” debates do not operate in a vacuum, of course. Viewers are influenced by media-manufactured moments and media organizations often take into account instant viewer polls, creating a sort of symbiosis. But as with the campaign in general, it’s not the case that the interests of the two entities are always necessarily aligned.

Blake Zeff, a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and former senior aide to Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, is a BuzzFeed contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @BlakeZeff or online at

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