Some Last Minute Debate Advice (Actually, Useful at Any Time)
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Suggested remarks regarding your performance in the first debate.
Don’t forget that, like any choice people make, elections aren’t really about the facts as much as they are about the feelings. The meters that will track people’s moment-by-moment positive and negative responses this evening will not capture merely the conscious reactions to what you or Romney say about the issues. More, they will reflect people’s subconscious feelings about what was said and, even more, how it was said.
Also recall the vast body of research that shows that as a candidate asks voters for their support, they are really asking people to trust them, and to win that trust, a candidate for any leadership position must convince people that he truly cares about them, that he cares about the job of taking care of them, that he cares about trying to improve their lives. This must be sincere. People are incredibly astute at sensing insincerity, which triggers MIStrust. (This is why you are urged to do more to highlight Mr. Romney’s flip-flopping on so many issues, changing his beliefs to curry votes.)
Intellectual dispassionate discussion of policies alone do little to convey such feelings. (Remember Dukakis, Gore, Kerry.) Affect is immensely important. Witness the turn around in the overall polls post-Denver, and the dramatic change post-Denver in the female vote, generally more affectively attuned/sensitive voters.
In this context, here are suggested messages, which will be easy to insert in an early answer in the town hall format;
“ I have an apology to make to the American people. In the way I delivered my thoughts in the last debate I might have given you a reason to doubt that I care about you. If I did, I apologize from the bottom of my heart, because nothing could be further from the truth. (Within the context of what is honest to your calm demeanor, you should deliver this line with all the passion and emotion you truly feel. Don’t just say you care. Show it, Sir!)
“There isn’t a moment that goes by, not a breath I take, that I am not deeply absolutely committed to caring about the American people and trying to find ways to make your lives better. Not just some of your lives, by the way. Not just Democratic lives. Not just the 53% of you that Mr. Romney suggested he and his funders should care about, writing off and not caring about the 47% of Americans he so dismissively called victims and moochers who he and his supporters don’t figure will vote for him anyway. I care deeply, passionately…completely…about the happiness and welfare of every single American.
"What a phenomenal opportunity it is to serve you, all of you, and though I may seem a little wonky at times and maybe too deeply engaged down in the policy weeds and details, the way I might have seemed in the last debate, that’s only because I’m constantly thinking about ways to make your lives better.
“When you elected me you gave me one of the greatest things anyone can ask of another person. Not your vote. You gave me your trust. I have tried hard to honor that trust. We’ve had great success, and certainly some stumbles, and certainly we’ve met with a lot of resistance from an opposition party whose singular goal seemed to be to keep us from accomplishing all we set out to do. There is much more to be done, and I want to do that work, on your behalf. I’m sure we’ll get into the policy details of those specific issues soon enough tonight. But right now, I want to reassure you about how honored and humbled and moved I am, every day, to have the great opportunity of being your President, and how deeply and passionately committed I am to working as hard as I can to make your lives better.”
You are a basketball player and fan, sir. There’s a loose ball on the floor, and 30 seconds left on the clock and the game is tied. We all know how hard you would dive and fight to get that loose ball…how much you would care about getting that loose ball, the passion you would show. Respectfully, your passion for improving the lives of the American people was not in evidence in the last debate. Tonight is an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of and demonstrate that passion.
Elections are rarely won and lost on specific policies on specific issues. They are usually decided by the emotions people have about how things are going generally, and how they feel about the candidates as people and as potential leaders. We remind you of the criticism you suffered during the BP oil spill…not for how you handled things, but for the dispassionate way you behaved, for your lack of overt anger at something so many Americans were angry about.
Please bear in mind this evening, sir, that people want to know their leader cares more than they care about what he knows.
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