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Memo to Obama: Smile—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The following commentary was published in the New Haven Independent on October 5, 2008.

Memo to Obama: Smile.
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10

Aaron Zelinsky, who grew up in New Haven and currently attends Yale Law School, edits a top-quality blog featuring political experts’ takes on the presidential and vice-presidential debates. In the following article, Zelinsky offers a strategic memo for John McCain and Barack Obama — and us — about Tuesday night’s debate.

Historical Analysis

• There have been eight previous follow-up presidential debates in history.
• History indicates that the second debate can be pivotal.
• Presidential debates, like The Godfather, can have sequels bigger than the original.
• George H.W. Bush’s infamous watch-check came in the second debate in the 1992 series. Ronald Reagan’s famous line ‘I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience’ occurred in the second debate of the 1984 season.
• Tuesday’s debate could prove pivotal. History hardly forecloses that possibility.
• The town hall format is more unpredictable than the moderated setup.
• Candidates have less of an idea about what questions will be asked, and that means we might catch a quick glimpse of some unprepared moments.

Advice to Both Candidates

• Don’t look at your watch. George Bush checked the time in the 1992 town hall meeting while Clinton was answering a question about the economy. Voters concluded that Bush was aloof and out of touch.
• Walk around. Don’t stay rooted in place. Move toward the audience when you answer a question.
• Don’t hover over your opponent. Al Gore did in the 2000 town hall forum and he came off as an awkward bully.
• Watch the reaction shots. Be careful about what you do when you’re not answering a question. The camera is on you at all times. Reaction shots count.

Recommendations for McCain

• Throw a lot of punches. McCain is trailing in the polls and needs to draw some blood to stay competitive.
• Bring a quiver of prepared zingers and work them into answers while appearing spontaneous.
• Look at Obama. In the first debate, McCain didn’t make enough eye contact with his opponent. If he avoids Obama’s gaze again it could become a real drag on him.
• Stay Calm. The conventional wisdom is that McCain is at his strongest in Town Hall forums. In order to live up to that billing he’ll have to look confident.
• Link the Democrats to the financial crisis. As of now, it’s all about the Republican administrations failure. McCain needs to highlight attempts to rein in Fannie and Freddie that were stymied by the Democrats in Congress.

Recommendations for Obama

• Focus on holding on to his lead, not building it. At this point, Obama’s leading in the polls. He needs to concentrate on avoiding a misstep, not try to deliver a knockout blow. His biggest weakness in this debate is his appearance of aloofness.
• Focus on economic recovery plans. Polls indicate that the Democrats are more trusted on the economy. Discuss what’s on peoples’ minds.
• Smile during answers. Obama needs to connect with the audience to combat the McCain campaign’s allegations of aloofness.
• Stand tall. Obama has a height advantage of McCain. He should make sure people know that.
• Keep your answers concise. Obama did a good job in the first debate of using a sound bite-analysis-sound bite organizational structure. He needs to bring that back for the town hall.