How to prepare a candidate for a debate?
Last week, John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz debated for the first and only time in the Pennsylvania Senate race. The Senate debate is exceptionally high stakes. It is an incredibly close race, control of the Senate could rest on the outcome, and it's the only time the two candidates will face off against each other. It was a high-stakes situation for the candidates and campaigns.
But what's it like to prepare a candidate for a debate? Debate prep varies significantly from campaign to campaign and candidate to candidate, but some materials and principles help prepare candidates.
The Briefing Book
Months before a debate, the candidate's research and communications teams put together a briefing book with self-research, opposition research, talking points, message boxes, bullet points, graphs, charts, and anything else the candidate needs. There's a balance between putting as much as possible in the book, so when the candidate asks a question, you can say, "Well, it's in the book," and producing something so voluminous that it's worthless. The book and the candidate's study material should get shorter and smaller as the debate gets closer.
The Talking Points or Message Boxes
You need to distill materials into digestible content for the candidate. Handing a candidate 500 pages of research is useless. When a debate comes around, the communications staff should have a pretty good idea of how the candidate likes the material presented. There are two good ways to distill materials. First, talking points are straightforward. We like our talking points to include a topline message and then break the points down. You could have one sheet of talking points or talking points for a debate on every issue. The topline message needs to stay consistent throughout the materials. Second, message boxes allow candidates to visualize the back-and-forth they might have with their opponents. It's straightforward.
These two foundational documents give the candidate the tools they need to prepare.
The Room and the Participants
This is the hard part. Everyone wants to be in debate prep. On a campaign, participating in debate prep too often conveys status when in reality, you probably can get more ROI out of direct voter contact. Either way, you need to figure out where you're doing debate prep and who is in the room. If your campaign has the resources, I like to hold debate prep in hotel rooms or conference centers away from the office. This helps you control the flow of the room, and the lack of familiarity with the space can be helpful. You don't feel like you should be jumping on a call or doing your regular day-to-day work. On occasion, I have had debate prep at a supporter's office. While physically convenient, it's hard to tell that person they can't sit in their office while you prep.
Which brings us to the participants. This can often be the most difficult part of debate prep. Sometimes your smartest staffers and consultants can be the most detrimental to your candidates' mood and preparation, while the deputy finance director who makes the candidate laugh and breaks the ice can become invaluable. It's important to curate the room and ensure the right people are in it. If your candidate wants detailed explanations, you need your research or policy person in the room. If your candidate wants to understand the sweeping narrative, your general consultant or TV ad person should have a seat. The goal is to keep the room as small as possible while marshaling the right resources for the candidate. What about family? This is impossible. Good luck. If there are challenging family members, try to schedule prep while the candidate is on the road.
You should have a strong stand-in for your opponent. You need to pick someone who will take studying and research seriously. You'll have to produce the same materials for the person playing your opponent so they can spar with your candidate in the most realistic way possible. You'll also want to put together some reels of your opponent for the stand-in to watch and study so they can learn lines and mannerisms. You'll likely get many offers from people to play your opponent, but you can use recommendations from other campaigns, consultants, and candidate organizations.
Debate prep is about managing the candidate, the staff, the logistics, and the materials. Ultimately, you must put your candidate in a stable learning environment and give them the resources they need to absorb information and train without distraction. It's easy for debate prep to spin out of control with a room full of unneeded staff or without the right materials. But if you're able to build a strong debate preparation process and team, it will help your candidate in the debate and on the trail. It's a worthy use of your staff time and candidate time.