Your 12-Dimensional-Chess Strategy Memo for the Debates

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There is plenty of guidance on our site, and elsewhere, about what subjects should come up for discussion at tonight's final debate. Please read!

But if, after you've tanked up on substance, you find yourself still hankering for a little gamesmanship / slugfest-strategy analysis, it's worth considering the note below, from a reader in California. It's possible that the reader is over-thinking this, and that he's imagined an approach more complex than what the Obama side really had thought through. But maybe not, and it provides one more angle to watch for this evening. Emphasis added:

I was re-reading the transcript and re-watching the second debate. I think much has been made of the weariness of Obama in the first debate, the tired body language. However, in the analysis of the debates, people have somewhat missed the most striking development.

The Obama staff figured out, in the second debate, both Mitt Romney's largest technical weakness, and how it fits into a loophole in the debate format. Obama back-loaded substance in almost every question asked in debate #2. That is to say, he would routinely make light, bland, mostly conventional talking points, and save the actual confrontation of substance for the rebuttal or follow-up sequence. This forced Romney to bicker and interrupt constantly, and it remains true from the first question on. On women's rights, Obama starts middle of the road, and then in the rebuttal, hits him on contraception. On Libya, he opens with boilerplate, Romney comes back, and then Obama hits him with the coffins and offense. Finally, the strategies in their last answers. Obama saved the 47 percent for when he knew Romney could not respond, which is already widely acknowledged. What is less acknowledged is this strategy was employed through the entirety of the debate.

It's a key flaw in how Romney operates. If you throw a boilerplate answer out, he will feel safe and respond with boilerplate. If you throw a knife, he will want to respond with a knife. If you time this correctly, however, and open with boilerplate with the intention to follow up with a knife, he isn't prepared. He is a reactive debater (ie. Kennedy on guns, Romney was prepared for it and took him to task). They key the Obama staff has figured out is that they have to open by giving him nothing that merits a reaction, because he is much weaker in the follow-up back & forth round, and his personal body language and tics come out significantly more.

I believe now that they see the opening, they will follow it in debate 3. Example: Libya. The President opens the same way, saying he'll take responsibility. Romney opens with his lines, probably trying to retroactively correct Crowley. Then, and only then, does Obama hit him with Issa's document dump putting people in jeopardy, the Republican party's adamant politicization of everything, maybe even the Allen memo to his employees. Essentially, using two minutes of rebuttal space to hit Romney not just with the substance, but with the broader theme of a party that holds nothing sacred. And they will throw this into the moderator's discussion time, which Romney still does not understand is not the same format as the opening gambits or, at the least, is still not as comfortable in.

The Romney team, I assume, has seen this issue and is trying to correct it. But it's a bit harder, because I think it's an innate thing, like Romney stuttering over his n's. He believes the the debate works like Person A speaks, Person B speaks, Person A speaks, Person B Speakers. The Obama team has figured out however, that the format works Person A speaks, Person B Speaks, Person A & Person B speak, and by back-loading the substance, forced Romney into a listening position for much of the second half of the confrontation.

Again, by the time of the third debate, the stagecraft and performance surprises are largely behind us, and the answers on substance matter all the more. But stagecraft, strategy, and presentation still make a difference, and this note offers one more thing to think about tonight and talk about tomorrow. (Then, starting at 10:30pm EDT, I'll skip the-post debate chatter and switch channels to watch the Giants win.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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