Message and Moments: A Conversation with Presidential Debate Coach Brett O’Donnell

Free the Facts kicked off its Fall 2020 Policy Tour with a debate-themed Q&A

Every debate ultimately comes down to two things, message and moments, veteran debate coach Brett O’Donnell told Free the Facts Wednesday night at its first virtual policy event of fall 2020.

In anticipation of tonight’s final presidential debate, O’Donnell, who has advised three of the last four Republican presidential nominees, sized up the current race, talked about his experience prepping candidates over the years, and answered questions from the attendees.

A common challenge for candidates, he said, is staying on message while also answering the questions.

“Audiences know if candidates aren’t answering a question, and they don’t like it,” O’Donnell said. “They think politicians are slick; they’re right up there with used-car salespeople.”

The candidates, therefore, must answer each question on their own terms: “meaning, if it’s a health care question, and the question is asked to put you on defense, answer it in a way so you can talk about it the way you want to talk about it.”

There are limitations to this strategy. For instance, if it’s a health care question, “you can’t talk about Iraq,” he joked.

And it’s not enough to relentlessly stay on message. When asked which debate moments from American history have stood the test of time, he replied,

“I think of ones that are not only clever in the moment, but become the argument of the debate that changes the tenor of the race.”

As an example, he pointed to the 1984 election. At the first debate, President Ronald Reagan, then running for re-election, looked tired and struggled with his answers. Afterward, the press openly wondered whether at 73, he was too old to serve a second term, especially when compared to his 56-year-old opponent, Walter Mondale.

But at the next debate, Reagan put those rumors to rest. When asked if he might not be up to the job, he replied he wasn’t going to make age an issue of the campaign and then quipped, “I’m not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

As the audience cheered, even Mondale knew he’d been beat; he himself let out a hearty laugh.

O’Donnell has been studying the debating champs for decades. A former director of debate at Liberty University, where he taught for 18 years, he is now a top communications strategist whose list of former clients includes George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

With all those years of experience, O’Donnell has learned a thing or two about presidential debates.

First, the preparation doesn’t start just weeks or months in advance, but years – essentially when the candidates begin to prepare for their primary debates.

O’Donnell estimated that for a 90-minute debate, it “probably takes an hour of preparation for every minute of performance”—and that’s not including the hundreds of hours of research that their staffers do in addition.

Second, all the candidates have their own unique preparation rituals. Some of the candidates he’s prepped have insisted on taking naps, playing tennis, or listening to the same song over and over.

“One of the most superstitious people I worked for was John McCain,” O’Donnell said, because “before every debate, we had to eat barbecue.”

But whatever the personal quirk, “you want to find what it is,” O’Donnell advised, so that “when they go out on that stage, you know they’re ready for the debate.”

Finally, when asked whether it’s harder to train college students or candidates, O’Donnell replied, without hesitation, “candidates!”

“I equate coaching candidates to coaching novice debaters who think they know it all,” he said.

O’Donnell noted that the debates, along with candidates’ convention speeches, are one of the few opportunities they have to fundamentally change the dynamics of a race. And yet their true value isn’t the exposure they give to the personalities; instead, it’s the attention they bring to the public-policy ideas under consideration.

“This is the one opportunity where voters get to see the candidates together on the stage -- without the trappings of the presidential campaign -- and compare their policies.”

Which is why all of us at Free the Facts will be tuning in tonight at 9 p.m. EST.

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