Undecided voters tuning in to the final Presidential debate on Monday can rely on more than their intuition to determine the winner. Objectively speaking, certain elements inherent in or missing from each candidate???s arguments will reflect his ability to manage time, as well as his degree of mental clarity regarding the uniqueness and superiority of his campaign message or narrative.
So how do political candidates decide what to say? And how can undecided voters identify an effective answer?
A candidate in a debate must be agile and ready with facts tailored to his target audience. He must cast himself in a favorable light and contrast himself with a seemingly inferior opponent. A lengthy script simply cannot afford this level of flexibility during a debate.
At the Leadership Institute???s Future Candidate and Campaign Manager schools, our faculty teach a useful diagram known as the Leesburg Grid. Debate viewers can also use it to recognize whether a candidate meets three important goals, which include to: 1.) define himself favorably; 2.) define his opponent unfavorably; and 3.) anticipate and counter his opponent???s attempts to do the same.
The Grid comprises four boxes. The left-hand boxes display the message each candidate would like to convey about himself. The right-hand boxes display how each candidate would like to define his opponent. Both Governor Romney and President Obama, for example, would independently complete his own version of the Leesburg Grid, anticipating one another???s debate strategy.
Below is an example of a completed Leesburg Grid:
|Romney about Romney||Romney about Obama|
|§ Proven leader§ Has a 5-point plan
§ Fiscally responsible
§ Job creator
§ Leads from the front
§ Works across the aisle
§ Unites America
|§ Failed leader§ Believes hope is a strategy
§ Fiscally reckless
§ Job destroyer
§ Leads from behind
§ Polarizes America
|Obama about Obama||Obama about Romney|
|§ Moves America forward§ Ensures the wealthy pay their fair share
§ Champion of the middle class, especially seniors, women, minorities, and the young
§ Brings jobs home
§ Takes a balanced approach to America???s challenges
§ Family man
|§ Moves America backwards§ Supports tax cuts for the rich
§ Ignores 47% of Americans
§ Supports the same policies that caused the recession
§ Out of touch
Using this Leesburg Grid as an evaluation tool, consider each candidate???s response to moderator Candy Crowley???s first question during the second Presidential debate: ???What about those long-term unemployed who need a job right now????
Gov. Romney vividly described America???s unemployment today, which he tied to four years of failed policies under the current administration. He then introduced his five-point plan to create 12 million new jobs and increase take-home pay. Next, he addressed the accusation that he wanted Detroit to go bankrupt:
???[President Obama] said that I said we should take Detroit bankrupt. And that’s right. My plan was to have the company go through bankruptcy like 7-Eleven did and Macy’s and Condell (ph) Airlines and come out stronger???
Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt ??? And I think it’s important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened.???
Governor Romney didn???t waste any time on flattery as did during the first 18 seconds of his previous answer. He defined himself as a competent and proven leader who knows how to create jobs. He anticipated and undermined the argument that he values profit more than people. Finally, he defined the President as a failed leader who squandered the past four years.
President Obama countered strongly. He redefined Gov. Romney as a ruthless businessman who cared little about keeping General Motors open during the interim of bankruptcy. Next, the President equated Gov. Romney???s proposed policies to those of the George W. Bush Administration. President Obama then redefined the Romney-Ryan five-point plan as ???a one-point plan???to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.??? He tied it all together with this assessment:
???That’s been [Romney???s] philosophy in the private sector, that’s been his philosophy as governor, that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.
You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get taxes for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.
That’s exactly the philosophy that we’ve seen in place for the last decade. That’s what’s been squeezing middle class families.
And we have fought back for four years to get out of that mess. The last thing we need to do is to go back to the very same policies that got us there.???
President Obama???s response cast Governor Romney in a new and unflattering light. The President could have done more to define himself, his policies, and his record, though. He left undecided voters without a clear alternative.
Monday night???s debate in Boca Raton will afford President Obama and Gov. Romney one last chance to define themselves and one another while on the same stage. Undecided voters should consider using the Leesburg Grid to objectively discern which Presidential candidate presents the best argument for the next four years.
John Poreba is the director of regional development for the Leadership Institute, which provides training in campaigns, fundraising, grassroots organizing, youth politics, and communications.