Opinion state of the race

What’s in a debate?

What's a town hall debate? A spin room?

Debates are like a circus. There is promotional advertising, the grand performance, and then afterwards, you exit through the gift shop, designed to give you the impression that what you have just watched was immensely entertaining and gratifying.

Many Americans who tune in to watch a debate are unaware of just how multifaceted a debate is. In today’s era of politics a debate is as much about what happens before and after the candidates speak as what happens during the debate itself. In the following piece I will provide an overview of most of the process of what goes into a debate. (While I focus on presidential debates, the same criteria hold true for debates for most political offices.)


Candidates aren’t bound to debate by law. It is customary for the nominees of the two parties to draft an agreement agreeing to the terms and formats of the debates. It should be noted that while this is a private process, negotiated in secret between the two campaigns, it is nevertheless sometimes used as a campaign issue when one campaign indicates that there is resistance from the other to debate. Such an issue came up in 2008, when John McCain favored more town hall-style debates while then-Senator Obama wanted to engage in more traditional-style debates.

Historically, a failure to come to an agreement on debates has not been a major issue. Yet during the Presidential election of 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to debate alongside an independent, Rep. John Anderson, who at the time was polling in the high teens nationwide. Carter’s refusal led to a one-on-one debate between Governor Ronald Reagan and Anderson, which had the simultaneous effects of introducing Reagan as a softer candidate than most had expected and hurting Carter’s standing amongst voters.


Nowadays there are mainly two different formats of presidential debates — a "traditional" format and a "town hall" format. A traditional style is where both candidates sit with a moderator (or stand behind podiums) and are asked questions by the moderator. In a town hall-style debate, undecided voters are chosen (for the current debates by Gallup) in the days before the debate and invited to attend with questions of their own choosing. Before the debate, audience questions are chosen by the moderator (selected by the Committee on Presidential Debates).

A famous exchange in a town hall-style debate took place in the 1992 Bush/Clinton election when Herman Cain (a 2012 Republican primary candidate), then CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, asked Bill Clinton a question relating to his proposed healthcare plan.

Debate Prep

In anticipation of a presidential debate, candidates go through rigorous debate preparation. Usually, someone is chosen to debate alongside the candidate, standing in for the candidate’s opponent. The goal of debate prep is to simulate the debate as best as possible, while also teaching the candidate to control his mannerisms and answers. The mock opponents can give sharp rebukes, intended to rile up the candidate. This is in order to teach the candidate to keep his temper in check and also to provide an opportunity to rehearse his one-liners, which are ever so important in the age of sound bite news.

Debate prep has been thrown into the spotlight in recent weeks — many praised Sen. Rob Portman for preparing Governor Romney for his first debate with President Obama two weeks ago. Recently, the president took additional time off from the campaign trail for debate prep in anticipation of his second debate tonight. His sparring partner is Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

The Expectations Game and Leaks

Winning debates is nearly as much about beating expectations than coming out the true victor in substance or style. In the days (or sometimes weeks) before the debate, it is usual for campaigns to shower praise on their opponent’s debate skills and downplay their own. This is known in the political world as “the expectations game.” The goal is to lower expectations. The lower the expectations, the harder it is to be wounded by a bad performance, and the easier it is to come out looking better than going in.

How are expectations lowered? Campaigns can either leak information to the press, indicating that campaign staffers are concerned about the possibility of their own candidate debating an opponent with more impressive rhetorical skills, or a senior staff official can directly compliment the other candidate. This year was no different — prior to the first presidential debate Obama tried to lower expectations, praising Romney — “Governor Romney — he’s a good debater” — while later being quoted as saying that “I’m just okay,” according to CBS News. Similarly, prior to the VP debate, nominee Paul Ryan said, “[Biden is] probably going to come at me like a cannonball...Joe Biden has been doing this for 40 years.” This is the classic way of lowering expectations — inflating your opponent’s experience and skill while downplaying your own rhetorical abilities.

The Spin Room

The debate stage isn’t the only place where campaigns slug it out on debate night. During every debate there is a room where campaigns “spin” the debate, trying to get across messages to the press that claim their candidate won the debate, and further promote the campaign's message.

Senior campaign staff (the communications director, political advisors, campaign managers, etc.) and other campaign surrogates (congressmen, senators, well-known former cabinet members, etc.) walk around accompanied by someone who holds a tall sign with their name. This allows the members of the press to easily identify individuals they want to interview.

The spin room is a place to find anything but substantive, new ideas. All representatives of the two parties who are present have carefully crafted talking points and are not meant to introduce new ideas that were not talked about in the debate itself. The main goal is to “spin” the situation by attacking the opponent’s performance while praising the party’s candidate.

The Pundits

No debate would be complete without the usual round of talking heads on the respective news shows. There is usually a full debate post-game-show on each network, with political correspondents from both sides of the spectrum, including former campaign managers and strategists. Political pundits usually rehash the important parts of the debate, as well as try to put their own spin on how things went. It is important to remember that each and every one of the panelists is partisan in some way, given their qualifications as current or former political advisors and party analysts.

Post debate “insta-polls” are also conducted by the different networks to try and get a sense of who “won” the debate across the different voter demographics.

The End Result

There are so many components of a debate aside from the 90 minutes during which the candidates take the stage. If you watch the debate tonight, don’t be surprised if either candidate comes out with a few carefully rehearsed one-liners, or if the post-debate spin doesn’t jive with your own opinions of the debate. It’s all part of the circus.

AJ Edelman can be contacted at aedelman@mit.edu.