Republican presidential debate candidates seek to make good impression

August 17, 2023


The Republican Party’s efforts to take control of the White House in 2024 begins with the first presidential debate Aug. 23 in Milwaukee—and the focus will be on frontrunner former President Donald Trump, whether he attends or not.

University of Michigan debate expert Aaron Kall said the debates allow voters to hear what the candidates say about the issues in one setting. It also means candidates who are not faring well in the polls get more attention.

Why are debates necessary?

Presidential debates remain critically important and valuable. Republican debates in the 2015-16 cycle were viewed by tens of millions of Americans. They are especially important to undecided voters that may be largely unfamiliar with several of the candidates.

Debates serve as an excellent job interview for the position of commander-in-chief. They show how candidates perform under pressure, answer questions they weren’t expecting, and require important information processing in real time. The first debate is generally most important because candidates only have one opportunity to make a good first impression and the qualification criteria for future opportunities will soon become more difficult.

How much can candidates sway voters who don’t support them?

It is true that the number of truly undecided voters is decreasing each presidential cycle because of political tribalism and partisanship. With that said, the closeness of recent elections showcases the major importance of swing voters. These Americans have a lot going on in their lives and aren’t likely to become fully engaged in politics until closer to major elections.

The start of the debate season is a good indication that political activity is ramping up and voting is just around the corner. Voting begins in Iowa just five months from now. Individual two-hour debates may not be able to completely sway undecided voters in one given direction, but it starts an important process. Positive debate performances can cause voters to seek additional information about certain candidates and even encourage political donations and support.

What must happen for Republican candidates to overtake former President Trump, despite his legal troubles with multiple criminal indictments?

Whether or not former President Trump shows up on the debate stage in Milwaukee, the other Republican candidates all have a very formidable task in front of them. Trump has a massive polling lead both nationally and in important early state contests. His lead is much larger than at this time in 2015 and has only increased exponentially following a series of recent criminal indictments. No candidates will be able to overtake Trump because of one excellent debate performance.

A solid night behind the debate podium could engender campaign momentum through positive news cycles and fundraising opportunities. Debates will regularly be occurring during the next several months and candidates may eventually get an opportunity to directly engage Trump on stage. Everyone is vying to be the last candidate standing as a legitimate alternative to Trump, and the debate process can help whittle down the field.

What will the three key issues be for the first two debates? (The second debate is Sept. 27)

The Fox moderators in the first two debates will have a lot of discretion regarding the topics and questions. Technology will also allow average viewers and voters to directly pose pertinent questions to the candidates on stage. Whether or not former President Trump is on the debate stage, he could still be the elephant in the room given his frontrunner status. In that vein, questions regarding his recent criminal indictments and whether candidates would potentially pardon him should be front and center. Other debate topics sure to be addressed include abortion, Ukraine, immigration, federal spending and debt, judges, President Biden and his son Hunter, energy policy, etc.

This year, to participate in the debates, the candidates had to sign a pledge, promising to support the eventual Republican nominee. Was that a wise decision by the party?

I understand where the Republican National Committee is coming from, but in hindsight it was probably a mistake. This issue has received a lot of unwanted media attention that only diverts attention from the debates themselves. The pledge is basically unenforceable and several candidates have made a mockery of it. Former President Trump has even used it as an excuse for why he may not participate in the debates. I’m also concerned by another part of the RNC pledge that candidates must agree not to participate in any general election debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. This really puts into question the immediate future of general election debates in 2024, especially if Trump and Biden are the two respective candidates.

What debate tips would you give the candidates?

The most important thing candidates can do to prepare for debates is practice. Mock debates involving campaign staff and candidate stand-ins are essential to simulating the actual event and ensuring proper preparedness. Candidates will have to prepare for contingencies that involve Trump’s participation and other scenarios that don’t. Everyone should just be themselves on the debate stage and not overthink things. It’s alright to come prepared with a few debate zingers in your back pocket, but they must be deployed at the right moment and shouldn’t sound forced or scripted.

The candidates should do everything they can to interject themselves into the debate when appropriate at opportune moments. They must always appear engaged, as they never know when the moderators may call their number. It’s fine to be bold and aggressive, but always remember you are most vulnerable to a counterpunch during this time.