Dem Debate Preview: Who Will Zing the Others in Houston? Who Will Wing It?

Politics aside for a moment, the top 10 candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination face a high-pressure communications event in front of millions on Thursday night

Image Credit: Screenshot, CNN

Just 10 candidates met the requirements of the Democratic National Committee to participate in this week’s debate in Houston this coming Thursday night — the third round of primary debates of this already-commenced 2020 election season.

Related: These 10 Dems Will Debate on Thursday Night

So the action this time around will take place all on one night and on one stage. (Shown above, left to right, are Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.)

Most of us pretty much know the political topics that will be addressed on Thursday evening, based on news reports, stump speeches and interviews — gun control issues, climate change, health care, foreign policy and more. And we know the candidates will go after President Donald Trump with a vengeance as often as they can. But how will these 10 primary candidates actually communicate their messages?

Think that’s not important? Guess again.

Even if each candidate is well prepared with discussion points and zingers (and one hopes each would be, at this stage of the game) — will they still have the skills to shift from being politicians to closers?

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As a communications expert, I analyzed for LifeZette the presentation successes and failures of the Democratic presidential hopefuls across the last two debate cycles — including the first debate in Miami, Florida, on June 26 and the next-night debate on June 27. I also analyzed the July Democratic debates for LifeZette. So I know what I’ll be looking for this time around to see if the candidates effectively (or not) deliver messages and connect with all those watching (including those present in the debate hall at Texas Southern University).

Ahead of the event, here are five actions I’ll be keeping an eye on, as will millions of Americans:

1.) How well will these folks handle confrontation from others? We all know what happened to former Vice President Joe Biden from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) in the first round of debates — and it wasn’t pleasant for Biden, that’s for sure, when Harris attacked him on America’s busing issues.

Related: Biden on the Hot Seat Again: Woman Rips Him for Grabbing Her Hands

Both the candidates and the audience know confrontations of some sort will occur on Thursday night. Whether the confrontations take the form of one candidate’s “gotcha” line toward another or whether it’s a continuous pile-on throughout the evening, the candidates under attack need to maintain composure and stay focused on substantive rebuttals.

Screaming angrily at rivals or flailing around does nothing to impress voters.

Fighting back by reinforcing one’s arguments is necessary — but it should be done with conviction, not anger.

2.) How about the act of creating confrontation — will they succeed at that? This move is just as important as reacting to it from others; but it can’t be perceived as bullying. Candidates should not focus on “spotlight showmanship,” but rather, genuine passion and purpose.

Listening to what opponents are saying and calling them out on inconsistencies or negative stances against America not only shows a candidate’s strength — it also shows his or her confidence in that person’s own beliefs.

Related: Trump Communicated a Powerful Message That Will Be Remembered for Years

3.) How well will candidates make eye contact with the Americans whose votes they need? Maintaining eye contact with a live audience and the TV cameras at the same time — cameras that will bring their remarks and actions into the homes of millions — is the key to success.

Candidates should nod acknowledgment to moderators that they’ve understood the question at hand — then respond directly into the camera and look at the live audience. When confronted by an opponent, they should turn to look at that person; but as soon as they respond, the candidates should again speak to the camera and across the seated audience.

No one does this more effectively than President Donald Trump — but these Democrats scrambling for primary voters will need to engage their entire audience if they want to make a meaningful connection.

4.) How well will candidates stick to “the rules” on time limits? While Biden surprised many the last few times around by interrupting himself and announcing that his own time was up, it’s not a smart debate tactic to break the rules of the evening; neither is talking over moderators.

Candidates will annoy and frustrate viewers if they show a blatant disregard for the rules their own campaigns have agreed to in advance; they’ll create chaos as well.

A memorable one-liner helped Reagan win a re-election landslide. That is how important composure, delivery, and serious presentation skills are on the national debate stage.

5.) How well will candidates answer questions directly? When candidates don’t answer direct questions from the moderators with clear, concise responses, audiences wonder if they’re hiding something.

Candidates should be clear and decisive — and follow up with supportive or amplifying statements. Viewers want honesty and transparency from the candidates, bottom line — so answer the question.

Related: Trump Gets Big Re-Election Endorsement from America’s Police

This Democrat debate will be a high-pressure event for all candidates, both those at the top of the polls and those scraping the bottom. Among other examples, historians and many others still cite President Ronald Reagan’s memorable debate line in 1984 against former Vice President Walter Mondale. When the Gipper was asked about age as an issue, he replied, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” As Reagan historian and presidential biographer Craig Shirley noted in LifeZette of that comment, “Even Mondale laughed. That was it. Game, set, match.”

(See that moment on video at this link here: It appears right at the start of this video.)

Sure, the Houston event is still a primary debate for Democrats. But that memorable one-liner helped Reagan win a re-election landslide. That is how important composure, delivery, and serious presentation skills are on the national debate stage.

Stay tuned for Thursday night’s face-off.

meet the author

John Di Lemme is president and CEO of DDG, Inc. (GiantGoals.com), a strategic business consulting firm based in West Palm Beach, Florida. As a global turnaround specialist, he has generated over $100 million for his corporate and entrepreneurial clients.

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