OPED: Moments over zingers.
Studies of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate showed those who listened on the radio thought Nixon won; those who watched on television declared Kennedy the winner. Visually Kennedy looked presidential and confident, while Nixon was sweaty and shifty and untrustworthy (proven to be true a dozen years later). Game over.
Presidential debates are also not about how smart you are for an hour or ninety minutes (see Al Gore v. George W. Bush). They are about what will be remembered tomorrow. They are about “moments”.
Why? Attention span. Normal voters aren’t your high school debate coach. And they are armed with remote controls and choices. They have lives and other interests and other priorities. Take this observation from my friend Amy Pritchard’s Facebook wall from a few nights ago during the Obama-Romney debate:
“So tonight I watched the debate in ‘America’ which was at an Applebee’s in exurban CT. We arrived a few minutes late – the bar had 8 big screen TVs. Most were on baseball. One was on the debate but was muted. We asked if we could turn up the volume to hear it. The manager obliged. The restaurant/bar was fairly busy for a Wednesday evening. Not a single other patron joined us to watch debate. No one even tried. No one cared. Just an observation.”
Nobody remembers a single detail about the 1988 vice-presidential debate between Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Senator Dan Quayle, but even 25 years later, most remember Bentsen’s “moment” when he told the younger Quayle, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
In 1992, then President George H.W. Bush created a bad “moment” when he looked at his watch (read: bored) while a question was being asked about how the recession and the budget deficit affected him personally. He made his moment worse by not even remotely understanding the question. Then, Bill Clinton turned the watch-plus-bad-answer into his positive “moment” by giving one of the best answers in debate history (amplified by the look of shock on Bush’s face).
Debates are hard to prepare for because there are many unpredictable variables, e.g., what questions will be asked or what your opponent will say or do.
Prior to Tuesday’s Obama-Romney debate, the Romney campaign bragged about how he had been practicing zingers. It is a safe bet that the 1988 Bentsen “moment” was a pre-rehearsed zinger – Quayle had mentioned his experience level was on par with former President Jack Kennedy before. Bentsen just had to execute it in the right context.
Simply memorizing “zingers” does not mean you will create a memorable “moment”.
But with careful planning you can create one.
During 2009, two months before the Indonesian presidential election, I was tasked to lead a strategic communications team on behalf of our new clients: former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her running mate Prabowo Subianto. When we arrived they were in a distant second.
We were asked to assist with debate preparation for our vice presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto. The debate opponent was Boediono, a newly nominated Vice President and economist. Boediono’s reputation was that of a boorish economics wonk. Our goal was to make sure our client, Prabowo, was anything but.
Prabowo’s prep session however resembled a boring, wonkish cabinet briefing. After listening to a dizzying array of job indicators, crop statistics and poverty rates, we interrupted (politely) to point out that debates are about “moments”.
What moment will voters remember most? What will make them feel like you understand their problems?
Knowing Boediono would defend the incumbent’s economic record, we decided to seize on one key poverty number: 120 million Indonesians live below the United Nations minimum poverty rate of USD $2 per day, or 20,000 rupiah.
Or to put it another way: not enough money to buy a cup of coffee where the debate was being held. We advised Prabowo to hold up a 20,000 rupiah note during the debate to drive home our message.
This is how the BBC reported it:
“… Ms. Megawati’s camp says the government has failed the poor. In one of the televised vice-presidential debates, Ms Megawati’s running-mate, Prabowo Subianto, pulled out a 20,000 rupiah ($2) note from his wallet to make the point that 50% of Indonesians only earn that amount in day. Not enough, he says, to buy coffee in the mall where the debate was held…”
We created our “moment” by visually demonstrating the complex problem of poverty and linking it to an iconic and vital daily staple of Indonesian life: coffee.
So what was Mitt Romney thinking when he attacked Big Bird three nights ago? Was attacking an American icon a pre-rehearsed “zinger”? Did he think he was creating his moment? Can he grasp the visual problem this has created for him?
Mitt Romney thinks he won the first debate against President Obama two nights ago in Denver. And technically, based on his performance for ninety minutes, he did win – on points.
But he is wrong. Mitt Romney erased all hope for victory by providing his own negative memorable “moment” when he attacked Big Bird.
If Mitt Romney were on the high school debate team he would have received an “A+” grade for his performance (assuming his teacher didn’t care about facts: The First Debate – Mitt Romney’s Five Biggest Lies).
Romney’s Big Bird zinger backfired and cost him 89 good minutes of a debate. Nobody remembers those. But every person in that Appleby’s in Connecticut who didn’t watch a single second of the debate are all Facebook’ing and Tweeting Big Bird today.
My Indonesian friend and colleague Heriyadi Janwar (Microsoft) contributed to this article.
Related: Romney’s Big Bird attack went a bit “viral”… some of the more creative examples that have hit my inbox: