From Gaffes to GIFs: The Great Shift in Presidential Debate Strategy

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The candidates, campaigns, and pundits have dropped any pretense that the first presidential debate will be anything more than a reality show in which President Obama and Mitt Romney are competing to see who can avoid looking stupid -- not saying something stupid -- on TV. The fear is not that they'll misstate the size of the national debt, but that they'll roll their eyes when the other guy does. The candidates' most important and difficult task of the October 3 debate will be controlling their faces. The road to the White House is strewn with the battered bodies of candidates revealed on a national stage to be eye-rollers, sighers, and fast-blinkers. 

Both candidates are actually working to dumb their answers down. The president must "cut down his tendency to give long, substantive answers," Obama campaign spokesman Jen Psaki said. Romney's aide "calculated his words-per-minute rate in the primary campaign debates to break him of the habit of feeling that he needs to rattle off the most statistics," The New York Times reports. Their answers will instead be crafted to cause a negative emotion to appear on their opponents' faces. Romney's task, according to Politico's Darren Samuelsohn, is to look quick-witted and agile, which he was not during the Republican primary debates. Romney has memorized zingers, the Times reports, and they're intended to trick Obama into looking "smug or evasive."

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This is actually important, according to both science and pundits. PBS's Jim Lehrer, who'll moderate the first debate, said it will be, in part, about "presidential temperament." And on ABC's This Week Sunday, former adviser for George W. Bush Matthew Dowd warned that "Obama has got to be careful... that he doesn't come across as irritable, impatient, 'Why am I here?'… and performs well from a mannerism standpoint, because if he doesn't," Romney could pull within 1 percentage point of Obama in polls. Former presidential candidate Howard Dean agreed, saying, "The key to a debate... is to turn off the sound, watch the mannerisms. It's not what they say... It is their mannerisms. It's how they come across." 

Boston College psychophysiologist Joseph Tecce tells The Daily that he who blinks least wins the debate. A high blink-per-minute rate signals negative feelings. In 2008, John McCain blinked 100 times a minute, while Obama blinked 41 times a minute. Obama won. How do we know? Because people made GIFs of McCain blinking. For example:


Romney's smug-catcher strategy seems inspired by the 2008 Democratic debate, in which the moderator asked Hillary Clinton if she's likable. She said she thought so. Obama said, "You're likable enough, Hillary." He barely looked up while delivering his zing. It would have been a high-five moment if he were insulting a mean ex-girlfriend, but in a presidential debate, he looked like a huge jerk. See:

But what raises the stakes is that all previous candidates who've been killed by GIF-worthy moments were killed before the total Internet dominance of GIFs. Dowd said Bush had looked annoyed he had to be on stage with John Kerry in 2004. After the debates, Kerry gained several percentage points in polls. In response, George Stephanopoulos said that in 2000, Al Gore's team thought he'd won the debate against George W. Bush, "but on mannerisms and the takeaway, he ended up losing." Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager, said, "Well, George, many of us remember the split-screen, and Al Gore was sitting there, rolling his eyes, perhaps, looking at George Bush, and basically, he started to sigh." She rolled her eyes to illustrate. We went back through the archives to illustrate, via GIFs, the real thing.

Gore sighing and eye rolling in the first debate:

Looking too cool for school:

In the third debate, Gore committed the unforgivable crime of nearly physically assaulting (walking up to) Bush to demand his position on something called "the Dingell-Norwood bill," an attack Bush deflected with a laser-guided bunker-busting nod. This is one of the most pivotal nods in American history.

In slow motion, you can fully appreciate the elegant economy of movement and precise timing of this nod.

That sound? That sound you hear is the cosmic echo of Al Gore's campaign imploding at that nod. (Gore won the popular vote.)

In 1992, as we all know, George H.W. Bush committed the suicidal act of looking at his watch:

Seriously, that is a legendary watch check. The Atlantic Wire, obviously, will be hoping and praying for any watch checks, nods, blinks, or sighs, and live-GIFing them if they happen Wednesday.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.