Memo to Women Candidates Part III: Lessons from the Presidential Primary Debates

This is the third in a series of memos to women candidates on best practices for political debates. See Memos 1 (Write Your Playbook Now) and 2 (What Kind of Debater Are You?) for more debate tips. 

History was made on the primary debate stage as women from both major parties stood shoulder to shoulder with the men. From the onset, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina each faced a unique set of challenges as well as a common obstacle. Two different candidates exposed the trials and triumphs of campaigning while female.

A debate is an excellent forum for women to demonstrate leadership. It is also a place where gaffes are amplified. This memo – third in a series – lays out lessons learned from the women running at the top of the ticket.  It examines the highlights and lowlights of how the candidates executed in four areas.

The Message Challenge

Fiorina was an inexperienced unknown who needed to make a mark in a crowded field of 18 candidates. The challenge was to stand out so she could get her share of limited air time. Being ignored was a real risk. In the early debates, Fiorina maximized her precious minutes by quickly articulating qualifications such as “a tested leader” who had been “fighting all my life,” “the secretary who became CEO.” Her repetition of message was well-executed, in contrast to Marco Rubio, who was called out for sounding robotic.

As a formidable frontrunner, Clinton had to be ready for incoming from all sides – Democratic and Republican opponents, media questioners, and pundits. Clinton’s challenge was to present a positive message while avoiding being put on the defensive. Her self-definition as “a progressive who makes progress” touted her experience on health care, children’s well-being, and terrorism. The message countered both the Republican attack (” too extreme”) and Bernie Sanders’ criticism (” too moderate”).

Attack Response

The first step to handling an attack from an opponent is anticipating it. When asked about Donald Trump’s comment that he didn’t like her face, Fiorina spoke calmly to a key demographic: “Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” The response stands as one of the most effective pushbacks against Trump’s misogyny. Fiorina demonstrated that she could defend herself and, more importantly, role modeled how to handle sexist attacks. Rather than ignoring comments, research shows women should respond by calling for an end to sexist mistreatment.

As Sanders railed against a “corrupt campaign finance system” and the “rigged economy,” he implied that Clinton is beholden to special interests. The repeated attacks have left him sounding like a one-trick pony. Clinton makes a broader appeal: “I’m running to knock down all of the barriers”— e.g. discrimination against African Americans, unfair immigration policies, and unequal pay for women. While Sanders offers rhetoric about free college, Clinton states she is: “Not making promises I cannot keep.”

Tone and Demeanor

bernie-fingerAt the MSNBC debate in New Hampshire, a heated exchange about how to keep jobs in America provided a vivid illustration of the gender demeanor gap. Sanders argued with his eyes popping, finger wagging, and shouting: “I’ll be damned!” The emotional display went unpunished. A woman candidate acting in a similar manner would be penalized. Voters scrutinize every aspect of a woman’s debate style, including her physical bearing and tone of voice. While listening closely to Sanders’ barrages, Clinton patiently stood her ground then spoke with a forceful, but controlled, tone embodying confidence. Slate described her style as “old school cool.”

Fiorina matched and surpassed Sanders in the rage department in her final debate before dropping out of the race. In late January, she was relegated to the undercard stage after languishing at single digits in the polls. Beseeching Iowa voters to fight with her to “take our country back,” her body language was tense and expression grim. The call to action was more bitter than inspiring. It appeared she decided to go out swinging, perhaps thinking she could position herself as an attack dog vice-presidential candidate.

Staging and Back Drop

The core of Clinton’s debate performance strength is her ability to project confidence at all times. If she is rattled, it doesn’t show. In debate after debate while under attack there were no split screen eye rolls, scowls, or outbursts. When ABC-TV’s David Muir restarted before she was able to make it back from a distant bathroom, she walked on stage assuredly.

It’s necessary to pay attention to the backdrop. As a former CEO, Fiorina didn’t nail the CEO look for TV. Under the lights, shiny pink and a deep maroon suits clashed with the true red background behind her. Accessories should be kept to a minimum; Fiorina wore a necklace with a large, gold cross pendant that hung too low.

The best candidates learn and grow from experience. The strength of Fiorina’s first performance catapulted her from the undercard to the main stage. But her lack of experience and composure showed at the end. Clinton has evolved in how she expresses her command of policy acumen so that it links more directly to people’s lives. In South Carolina, she raised the issue of lead poisoning by expressing outrage about the crisis in Flint: “I want to be a president who takes care of the big problems, the problems that are affecting the people of our country every day.”

When the confetti is swept away after the summer conventions, more history could be in the making.   Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin competed in vice-presidential debates, but the presidential showdown has remained an all-male affair. As a seasoned debater, Clinton is more than ready for the highest stage.

jahnke_WEBDebate and speech coach Christine K. Jahnke is the founder of Positive Communications and the author of THE WELL-SPOKEN WOMAN. This is the third in a Jahnke’s series of memos to women candidates on best practices for political debates. See Memos 1 (Write Your Playbook Now) and 2 (What Kind of Debater Are You?) for more debate tips.