10 Tips on How to Win a Presidential Debate

The first 2008 US presidential debate (link) was very interesting to watch because winning the debate was very important for both parties as the results of polls are so tight.

Before the debate Republicans called for postponing. Many took this as a sign of weakness. But has it really been so?

Here are top tips on how to win a debate, as we could see from a man who has the greatest resources on the planet dedicated to that job.

1. Play on compassion

Rarely you will see a compassionate politician, but campaign is an excellent opportunity to remind the voters you are made of flesh and blood.

McCain opens the debate by mentioning Kennedy in hospital and wishing him well. Through many other occasions he mentions his love and thoughts for veterans.

Obama on the other hand shows no compassion, and uses almost technically precise language that is foreign to most of the voters. At one moment he even says that "they will capture and kill Bin Laden". Saying you will kill someone on the air is a capital error especially true for an aspiring president.

McCain starting out with news of Kennedy in hospital

2. Ignore your opponent

Pretending your opponent does not exist is an important strategy in a confrontational debate. It shows you are not interested in what your opponent has to say, as if their opinion is not important. This tactic can even inspire aggressive behavior and mistakes on opponent's end.

McCain plays this tactic masterfully, and Obama was desperate for an eye contact. But during the whole length of the debate (90 minutes) McCain did not give him a single glance, always looking straight at the camera, the host or his papers.

McCain ignores Obama throughout the whole debate

3. Never defend yourself

Instead use more attacks on the opponent.

Obama was caught in this game and spent most of the debate defending himself of McCain's attacks. He more often said "That is not true" to the camera then any other phrase in the debate.

On the other hand, McCain would simply ignore even the most direct and harshest allegations, pretending he didn't hear them. If you want people to forget something bad about you, just bury it. True for any affair, so true for politics.

4. Never acknowledge your opponent's success

Saying you agree with something your opponent said does not help you at all, and it only makes them look better.

Obama made a mistake of repeatedly agreeing with McCain's statement. He dug himself even more by using strongest of the phrases like "Senator McCain is absolutely right" or "I give senator McCain great credit".

McCain never came even close to acknowledge any of Obama's thoughts.

(update: day after the debate Republicans have already produced an ad emphasizing this)

5. Hold to your prepared speech

Although the questions were not known before the debate, the topics were and both candidates were well prepared.

McCain refused to give answer to any of the direct questions by Obama and instead just kept to the prepared speeches for the topics. He knows there is no point on reinventing the wheel, when the experts already prepared him the most optimal lines beforehand.

Obama, while clearly more technically and on-the-spot intelligent then McCain, often showed nervousness and lack of fluency in his speech as he tried to give his honest opinion on the matter. While certainly more valuable, the last thing a presidential candidate wants to show on the air is insecurity.

6. Keep smiling

Smiling is very important part of winning the vote.

Obama takes matters too seriously. As grim as the situation really is, the voters will always prefer comfort to caution.

Although McCain uses artificial smiles, he uses them straight to the camera and often even overdoes them.

McCain smiles to cameras while Obama speaks

7. Avoid sarcasm

Sarcasm is the sign of intelligence, but not recognized as a sign of leadership the voters look for.

While McCain remains stone cold at all accusations, Obama reacts to accusations with a sarcastic smile, often looking at the floor. For some people sarcasm is also a sign of lack of self confidence.

8. Self confidence

Calmness and self confidence are signs of great leaders.

While McCain remains calm and confident during the entire debate (reciting prepared speech helps a lot with that), Obama often has to employ excessive body language like waving hands to make his point. Waving hands usually gives an impression that you are not confident your words will do the job.

Obama uses his hands excessively while speaking

9. Win "Who is your daddy" game

Debates always have mini "Who is your daddy" games played among the candidates to show who is stronger.

Here are some examples.

McCain never looked towards Obama from the moment they shook hands to the ending of the debate (the 'ignoring' game). Obama on the other hand, looks and listens carefully to McCain while he talks, and the viewer sees a careful listener there but also a glimpse of a student-teacher relationship, something you do not want if you are presidential candidate.

Or, at the beginning of the show, you can see Obama walking towards McCain with his hand already open for a shake while McCain awaits last moment to do so.

Obama walks towards McCain with his hand open for a shake

At the end of the show, Obama is shaking McCain almost passionately. He even puts his other hand on McCain which is often a sign of a weaker position and respect for the other side. McCain does not show any signs of that.

Obama puts his arm on McCain

10. Finish with compassion

Just like it's important to begin with, finishing the debate with compassion plays important role in wining votes.

While Obama tried to touch it with a mention of his origins in Kenya, McCain made a much stronger point using veteran issues as a starting point "...when I came home from prison [in Vietnam]".


This debate was easily won by McCain scoring ten out of ten, and I think he laughed at how unprepared Obama was for such a serious mission. I know many had already jumped to say how Obama had much more to say then McCain but here is the catch. Most of the voters still do not care where Iraq or Pakistan are, or what a global financial crisis is, and it is actually more important the way you say it then what you have to say. Those signs of potence will be recognized by a common man as values of a stronger leader, and that is all that counts when it comes to election.

I have to say McCain's campaign people are top notch for the job. I think they set Obama up with a stunt to delay the debate which sent a signal they were not ready for the debate. But they clearly were and it was only a bait that Obama's people took. They rushed for the debate, taste of victory in their mouths, obviously forgetting important debate lessons in the process.

In politics there are no rules. This should be first lesson learned at law schools. The way this campaign unfolded shows masterful knowledge of a political campaign theory by the republican party. Having Palin as vice president was a vote swinging choice. Hockey mom who defends foreign policy knowledge by proximity of Alaska and Russia may be a laughable choice for many intellectuals, but I would have to dig back in the history to find the last intellectual who was a leader of a country. Times change. (update: they did make a great mistake afterward, they should not let her speak).

Here is a personal thought from someone standing thousands of miles from a very hot grounds that are US today. US Congress may pass the proposed $700bn to bailout the corporate crooks. How come it never occurred to them to bail out more then five million Americans without health insurance - a much useful prospect in every aspect? Is that really the reality of US today and is it likely that either candidate has the will and power to change that?

And without too much hope of seeing really forward thinking people like democrat Dennis Kucinich or (ex) republican Lincoln Chafee actually making it for the USA presidental race in the near future, I only hope that who ever gets elected, pays much more attention to this planet and living beings inhabiting it, than his predecessor.

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  1. yoyoyo
    Oct 13th, 2009 8:26 AM

    If McCain is so much better than Obama in talking, then how did he lose the election?

    • Oct 13th, 2009 9:37 AM

      I hope you noticed certain dose of sarcasm in my comments. Proving a sarcastic man wrong is always a good thing.

  2. Apr 19th, 2009 12:34 PM

    I still like this article. Obama won at the end and I am glad that some of the points I made do not seem to be that strong in US anymore.

  3. Oct 10th, 2008 10:41 AM

    Thank you very much!

  4. mercime
    Oct 10th, 2008 8:15 AM

    Thank you Vladimir. It was so refreshing to read an intelligent analysis of the debate. I have heard and seen so many nonsensical claims from supposedly professional mainstream journalists who are doing a disservice to their audience. Those journalists should learn about debating from you. Thank you once again. Peace.

  5. Oct 4th, 2008 11:24 PM

    Okay, Palin pretty much lost me when she suggested that the U.S. needs to start leading the rest of the world in cleaning up the world. With the obvious exception of China, if she doesn't understand how much damage the last 8 years have done to the environment, nor have even a vague notion of just how far out of the loop we are in terms of environmental reforms, then I see her as ill-prepared for governance, and or delusional.

    That said Obama, and his cadre still scare me, so I've decided to put my money where my mouth is, and put myself down as a write in. :)

  6. Oct 4th, 2008 2:26 PM

    Great analysis. Are you sure you're not an American citizen? :-)

  7. Oct 4th, 2008 12:30 PM

    Of course, the polls can say who won, I was just expressing my opinion.

    Vice presidential debate was interesting, I think Biden won that one but very closely. It seemed that candidates were briefed of questions in advance and allowed to take written speeches (they were reading something of the desk obviously).

  8. Anonymous
    Oct 4th, 2008 7:00 AM

    hey interresting that you are all wrong polls show on the economy obama had a 56 to 38% edge, and on foreign policy a 52 to 48% edge look at cnn.com poll of polls, which includes very many polls on the same. i think what you need in a debate more importantly is to have a sense of where the public stands on some issue, thn you just align yourself with them and you run away with the debate. i appreciate your comments and i think they are really good observations, but on an issue like iraq its clear what the perception is, the people are mless interested in winning the war, than in stoppimhg the loss of american lives, so mccain aligned himself with the wrong issue. again on the economy, mccains gretaest failing is that he doesnt apply some critical thought before he comes out with a position. obamas greatest failing was that he feels the urge to see both sides of an arguement before explaining his position, which ends up in agreeing too much. however the latter position is more amiable and acceptable to women who are actually responsible for his surge in the debate polls. so vladimir, you are off target

  9. Sep 30th, 2008 2:49 PM

    Wow , nothing like politics to spark a great debate , great post Vladimir !

  10. Sep 29th, 2008 3:15 AM

    In terms of fairness, I did rewatch the end of the debate again, on hulu.com

    McCain just blinks like crazy. I might have been reading a bit too far into it.

    I still think he attempted to paint much of Obama's positions out of context, when he knew the context quite well.

    As far as that is concerned, there seems to me a fine line between doing a poor job at acting, and speaking untruths.

  11. Sep 29th, 2008 2:43 AM

    I am not in a position to accuse McCain of specific lies, however as far as I can remember I've always hand very good instincts for knowing when someone was lying to themselves, primarily, and If I had to guess I'd say that I was half way decent at picking out when someone is attempting to pull the metaphorical wool over my eyes. It's the white lies that usually get people because people generally like to think of themselves as honest, so they will often go to extraordinary lengths to make themselves believe something before they make any attempt to make someone else believe something expedient and or convenient to the teller.

    If you want to read a disturbing, but very informative book on deceit, to include tactics to discern when people are lying based on how they craft their words, then check out Quirkology by Dr. Richard Wiseman. He got his Ph.D. in deceit.

    There were a few times when I thought McCain was being less than truthful, the one I'll mention specifically was when McCain accused Obama of not "getting," Russia's aggression into Georgia.

    Excuse me, but unless McCain has had his head buried in the sand, he would know that in terms of taking this controversy from political posturing to to physical violence, Georgia acted first, by bombing, and by attacking Russian peacekeepers.

    Obama's comment that "Both sides should show restraint," was spot on, as we weren't going to do anything signficant about the situation, and personally, I still doubt we will, and if McCain didn't truly know that, then I think he should be ruled out for that measure of incompetence alone. I have little doubt he knew what went down between Russia and Georgia, long before we did, and he is sacrificing the truth for political posturing.

    If we are saying that all is fair in love, war, and politics, then we are saying that it is naive not to expect that he will lie. None of that changes the fact that, if I'm right, he has lied, whether we choose to hold him, or any politician, accountable or not.

    They were just naive to think that we would come to their rescue. Selling them arms is one thing, but actually using our military, to protect them, well unless they start coming up with the natural resources Iraq has, or the strategic importance Afghanistan has, they will continue to be in a for a rude awakening, unless of course, pipelines start coming into play, as our military shuts down without oil, (as does any significantly sized military on this planet) thus it has become a sort of hungry hippo.

    Well, here is a link to the other side of the story, as our press for the most part, did not emphasize that Georgia attacked Russian Peacekeepers first. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNw24Il7lZY

    I think this is a great article explaining much of what could be made better about American foreign policy, much better, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/why-russia-invaded-georgi_b_118344.html

    It's just that I don't agree with his conclusion to support Obama because he is the lesser of two villians (my inference, not his)

    There was also another spot near the end of of the debate when McCain was blinking like a rabbit in the wind. I didn't believe his response initially, and then when he started with the blinking, I just tuned him out.

    If I watch the debate again, which I seriously doubt, as I am not in the habit of making insult to my own injury, I'll make a not of the time,

    Finally, a paraphrased quote from the movie Lawrence of Arabia. It was spoken by the French Diplomat near the film's end. He said the difference between a liar, (such as myself) (still quoting the movie here :) ) and someone that tells half-truths, is that the liar knows what the truth is, but for whatever reason does no speak it, whereas the person who speaks half-truths, has forgotten where they have put the truth entirely. Remember, I said it was a paraphrase.

  12. Sep 28th, 2008 10:27 PM

    Thanks Steph, I tried to stay impartial which my position easily grants me. I do have a preference among the two, but I have listed my real preference at the end of the article.

  13. Sep 28th, 2008 5:19 PM

    Moram reci alal vera za presek tj obradu govornika.
    Posebno mi je drago sto sam procitao iz prostog razloga sto covek mnogo moze da nauci.
    Zaista osvezavajucao obrada politicke scene. Jos jednom, svaka cast

  14. Sep 28th, 2008 3:24 PM

    Vladamir - this is a fascinating view on the debate! I didn't get to watch it, but have listened to the news reports since then. Regardless of who you are supporting in the election itself, you have definitely listed the top keys to a successful debate. I hope Obama comes across better in the future.

  15. Sep 28th, 2008 1:20 PM

    To the person who said McCain lied, can you give examples?

    Regarding the comment about McCain being negative:

    Considering the fact that Obama is running a campaign mired in disingeniuousness, McCain has to be negative.

    Everything that Obama claims for himself

    - Reformer
    - Ethical
    - Non-Partisan
    - A Uniter
    - Aspirational

    are inventions. There is nothing in the man's past to support any of those claims. Thus McCain , by necessity, has to be negative because these lies must be exposed and debunked.

    It's a very clever strategy that Obama has chosen... run for office.. not based on your record of accomplishment, but instead run for office based on some platitudes that no one could find objectionable. While at the same time do everything you can to hide or deny your past and your former associates.

    On the Democrat side are four groups of people

    - The naive lets-all-get-along camp... they see a black man running for President , and see that as a way to atone for America's past.. nothing about Obama (good or bad) concerns them.

    - The Far Left Marxists.. the camp that Obama comes from. Obama is their stealth candidate. They are both aligned in goals. Also the Utopians are part of this group.. this includes most of the media.

    - The Hate Bushers.. the camp that just despises Bush but is not necessarily composed of Far Leftists. This camp is blind to what Obama is doing because they are mainly focused on ensuring that Bush and Republicans are repudiated and defeated. They will regret that Obama is their candidate.

    - Country First... a lot of these folks are the "racists" the news tries to discredit. These are people who are genuinely concerned for thier future and their family's and have critically examined Obama and have discovered the truth.. that he is not good for them. The Clinton supporters, PUMA, are part of this group.

    Once you understand the significance of Obama's former associates and the current Congressional Far-Left Democrat leadership a person can better understand what is going on.

    Is John McCain up for this challenge? Does he fully understand what he is up against? I don't think he does.

    Most people don't have a clue.

  16. Sep 28th, 2008 12:36 PM

    Thanks Jonathan for that comprehensive and well-intended explanation!

    Republicans have already put an ad up regarding item number 4 in my list, boy they work fast (I've updated the post with a link to youtube ad).

    And I haven't even begun to analyze the two campaigns but there is an obvious difference. McCain's is mostly what you call 'negative' and in past usually that kind of campaigns won.

    I think these times may see the peek of such 'negative', 'bullying' and 'ignorant' political campaigning and unless the people wake up, McCain people only have to follow a very simple todo list in order to win, which is what they do so far. Obama's people could do that as well at stake of their integrity - I think they should have done it as this is still politics, and no one will remember how did you come to power once you get there.

  17. Sep 28th, 2008 12:15 PM

    It seems my rather lengthy reply was met with a browser error.

    I don't think Obama is not considering the issues, not at all, I think it's his conclusions that are naive, as his expectations as to how much, if not most of the business sector, with very few exceptions will respond to his plan, will in no way mirror his ideals. There will be exception as to his pet projects, assumptions provided all around.

    As English is not your first language, I'm going to assume you were not being casual, as normally I would not "correct," anyone's English unless they asked.

    Learning anothers' language is an entirely different matter however. You may have been looking for "stupefying."

    Though stupefying infers that one is being made stupid for whatever reason, and as such, I may as well tell you that the word "stupid," has become quite taboo among the educated in these parts, and depending on your audience, should you utilize the word in speech, you may begin to find "closed ears," as soon as you get past the first syllable, as both words sound so similar at the onset.

    I can't speak for British English, though in general I have found their word usage as far less reactionary, and significantly more nuanced.

    My mum learned was taught English from her British nanny, hence my slightly skewed perspective in that regard.

    If I could just combine their word usage with what used to be our very real freedoms... :) (at least as compared to living your life legally subject to anyone)

    Finally, yes, sadly with economic disparity often comes educational disparity, and I have little doubt that emotional soundbites will get McCain a lot farther than even Obama's usual eloquence.

    The only way I see Obama getting in is if enough of us Libertarians stick our ground, and don't vote Neo Conservative/Republican, or "Advanced Liberal" as I like to call it.

    Either way, it's a hell of a mess.

  18. Sep 28th, 2008 10:45 AM

    Vince and Al: Thanks!

    Jonathan: Just like you may think of Obama as naive for taking business sector lightly, there are scores of his supporters that actually believe he is going to change it. And McCain's naiveness and ignorance can be watched from the same angle. Naiveness is really not an issue - for stupdifying and degrading (is that a word) rules of political engagament today it can even can be an advantage.

  19. Sep 28th, 2008 10:28 AM

    Interesting observations. McCain came across as a condescending liar to me, and Obama, seemed like he got more than he could handle in McCain's failure to engage, he was itching for a fight. His stammering was disconcerting, and to tout FDR, as a great leader. (through out his campaign, not in this debate) Please,! he was the one who facilitated handing over the country to the financial sector to begin with, and you can see what good that did us. To say nothing of mismanagement of the Navy for political gain, and at the cost of soldier's lives. To say nothing of imprisoning American citizens just because of their petty fears that their Japanese heritage might make them less American. (You didn't see them locking up Americans of German descent just because of their heritage.)

    I would definitely give that one to McCain as well, though I won't be voting for either one of them. I'm sick and tired of business as usual. They are both sides of the same coin. If that means we get Obama and his brand of American socialism, his naive expectations from the business sector, and Supreme Court Justices that I wouldn't trust to walk my neighbor's dog, then so be it.

    Maybe the Republicans will start taking the Constitution seriously, as they watch their constituency further degrade.

  20. Sep 28th, 2008 1:26 AM

    I wish I had seen what you did.
    I'm one of those that knew McCain won but not why. I just felt better about what and how he said it. I hope I'm not the only one who gravitates to strength and integrity. Now I know why I read your blog, you're pretty smart.

  21. Sep 27th, 2008 7:49 PM

    Great observation on the Debates.

    My country is losing its mind, I'm afraid. The Democrats are insane, and the White House is sleeping.