Donald Trump and Joe Biden will take center stage for the presidential debates that begin on Tuesday, but the real work will be done by a small but influential group of experts and consultants who specialize in preparing them to enter the arena. For 43 months out of every 48, these individuals live their lives as lawyers, academics, politicians, and consultants. But for five crucial months, from June through October of a presidential election year, they shift gears and become the researchers, writers, trainers, and coaches for the American gladiatorial spectacle.
In the earliest days of the presidential debates, candidates not only failed to do debate prep but also frowned on its use. Neither Richard Nixon nor John F. Kennedy did full-on prep sessions for the first televised debate in 1960. Nevertheless, Kennedy aide and confidante Ted Sorenson recalled waking Kennedy one afternoon shortly before the debate and finding him covered in policy index cards.
The parties took a long hiatus from debates after the Kennedy-Nixon duel. In 1976, televised debates resumed, and President Gerald Ford became the first candidate to participate in a mock debate, which he undertook to prepare himself for his encounter with Jimmy Carter. As Ford later recalled, "Over a four-day period, I spent nine hours under the lights, and the grueling preparation boosted my confidence."
Carter did not do prep sessions in 1976. But Carter did watch tapes of the 1960 debates with actor Robert Redford. Redford gave Carter advice as they watched the films, and Carter later said that "I was probably president because of Bob Redford."
By 1980, Carter changed his approach. He did a full-on prep session at Camp David, and he brought in political scientist Samuel Popkin to play Ronald Reagan. Popkin had written a memo on Reagan's communications techniques and was skilled at anticipating Reagan's rhetorical moves. Popkin later wrote that Reagan used every riff that Popkin had used in the prep sessions, "with the exception of one." These Reagan speeches were hard-hitting, though, and it was not easy for a role player to stand before the president of the United States, even in a mock session, and tell him all the ways in which he had failed. As Popkin later recalled, "It was one of the more complicated, emotionally draining experiences of my life, including war, auto injuries and any other experience you can think of."
Despite Popkin's success in channeling Reagan, he and other advisers failed to talk Carter out of discussing his daughter Amy's views on nuclear disarmament at the debate. As Popkin recalled, Carter took a phone call while his aides were urging him not to play the Amy card, preventing the message from fully sinking in. The Amy ploy became Carter's biggest mistake in the debates.
Reagan also underwent comprehensive debate prep sessions in 1980, holding them in a garage made up to look like a television studio. Reagan's best rejoinder that year came out of these sessions. According to Reagan debate coach Myles Martel, the challenger's team had been searching for a personable and easygoing way to deflect the expected Carter attack that Reagan was too extreme, and his good-humored, "There you go again," fit the bill. The practices also presented Reagan with an even tougher rival than Carter himself, the 33-year-old Congressman David Stockman, a ferocious opponent and tough critic in the sparring sessions.
Stockman also played Walter Mondale in Reagan's 1984 debate preparation, and was just as tough as he was in 1980, if not tougher. According to Lou Cannon's Role of a Lifetime, Stockman badgered Reagan so much that the president yelled at him to "shut up." When Reagan complained that Stockman had been too "nasty" to him, Stockman replied that "[White House Chief of Staff Jim] Baker made me do it." This may have been true, but some members of the Reagan camp, Cannon observed, felt that Stockman enjoyed showing up the president.
Nancy Reagan told Deputy Chief of Staff Richard Darman not to "overwork" Reagan and limited the debate briefing book to 25 pages—but Reagan still failed to open it. Baker and Darman recognized that their cosseted candidate was in no shape to compete, so they encouraged Stockman to go hard against him.
Even after the tough workouts with Stockman, Reagan was still unprepared for his first debate against Mondale, whose prep team included pollster Pat Caddell and the lawyer Lewis Kaden. It showed. Even Reagan's attempt to bring back his triumphant "There you go again" line backfired, as Mondale anticipated the line and used it against him:
You remember the last time you said that? . . . You said it when President Carter said you were going to cut Medicare, and you said, "Oh, no, there you go again, Mr. President." And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare.
After Reagan's poor performance in the first debate, his staff went into panic mode. Roger Ailes was brought in to observe a practice session held in the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House. Ailes found Reagan uncomfortable and tired: "He clearly didn't want to be there, but this mock debate was on his schedule." When one of the role-playing moderators asked Stockman a question, "He gave a perfect answer, reading it out of some notebook put together by Ph.Ds." By contrast, Reagan "ad-libbed, fumbling around a bit."
Ailes told Baker that the next debate would be "a disaster if you keep this up." Ailes suggested cancelling the prep session, giving him a half hour alone with Reagan. Ailes told Reagan that he "got elected on themes" and that "every time a question is asked, relate it to one of your themes." He then started a "pepper drill," where Ailes and a few others peppered Reagan with questions. For the drill, Ailes instructed, "What I want you to do, is to go back to your instincts. Just say what comes to you out of your experience."
Thus relaxed, Reagan was now in a better state of mind for the debates, but one key issue remained. "What are you going to do when they say you're too old for the job?" Ailes asked. Reagan smiled, and told him, "Well, there's an old line I've used before." That line would become famous: "I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." The quip, delivered seemingly impromptu, proved devastating.
In 1988, one of the most memorable debate incidents took place in the vice presidential debate, when Dan Quayle tried to compare himself to John F. Kennedy. Lloyd Bentsen retorted with the brutal comeback: "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Not surprisingly, this moment had its origins in debate prep sessions. Ohio congressman Dennis Eckart was the stand-in for Quayle in Bentsen's debate prep. He tried to channel Quayle, telling Time that "For Dan Quayle I put on a golf sweater, put a golf tee behind my ear and twirled a putter." He also listened carefully to what Quayle was saying on the campaign trail, including a reference to how he and Kennedy were of similar ages during their respective runs. When Eckart tried Quayle's line on Bentsen in a prep session, Bentsen replied "You're no more Jack Kennedy than George Bush is like Ronald Reagan"—a proto-version of Bentsen's eventual zinger.
Bentsen was well-served by his debate team, but Quayle fell victim to bad staff work. According to Time, Senator Bob Packwood, who stood in for Bentsen, "assured Quayle that Bentsen was a courteous man who wouldn't be rough on the young Senator." Packwood evidently did not realize that the concept of senatorial courtesy differed from expected behavior at a vice presidential debate, leaving Quayle unprepared for the legendary putdown.
Another prep failure took place in the 1996 vice presidential debate between Al Gore and Jack Kemp. Gore's team pressed him to be disciplined about staying within the debate time limits, guessing that Kemp would not be nearly as disciplined. Their suppositions were correct, and Kemp self-immolated so spectacularly that prepper—and now New York governor—Andrew Cuomo barked to his fellow Gore aides, "Suit up [Kemp stand-in Tom] Downey! This guy can't hack it!"
Gore was also helped by some mistakes on the GOP side. According to James Fallows, who analyzed Gore's debate performances, Gore stand-in Judd Gregg played Gore "like a cartoon liberal who was extreme about the environment, who yearned for taxes and big government, and who walked right into Kemp's traps." In addition, Kemp also appeared to have lived up to what Fallows called his reputation for being "underprepared," reportedly preferring to watch Monday Night Football over doing debate homework.
Gore would have no such luck in 2000 against George W. Bush. Bush was steady and disciplined. Gore, in contrast, was inconsistent. He was bizarrely aggressive in his first debate—from his swagger on the stage, to his rude sighing, and irritated headshaking while his opponent spoke. Before that debate, Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile had noticed that Gore "was drinking one too many Diet Cokes and then followed up by one of those power bars, and I'm like, uh-oh. He's going to have a surge moment." After extensive coaching from his team, which included making the candidate watch Saturday Night Live's parody of his first performance, Gore over-corrected, and appeared subdued, bordering on robotic, in the second debate.
Recent debates have seen serious variations in approach. In 2012, Mitt Romney thrashed President Obama in their first debate. Romney's beatdown led to speculation that Obama did not prepare sufficiently. Debate coach Karen Dunn made it clear to Obama that he needed to be tougher on Romney going forward, telling the president, "You need to punch him in the mouth." Obama listened; he did better in the next debate and outright won the third. And in the 2012 debate between then-vice president Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan, Biden mugged, interrupted, and made faces, not unlike what Gore had done to Bush. In 2000, Gore was mocked for his performance, but the media generally gave Biden good marks for similar shenanigans 12 years later.
The most prominent debate prepster involved in the 2020 race is Ron Klain, who has counseled the Gore, Kerry, Obama, and Hillary Clinton campaigns. He is known for running a tight debate-prep operation. On the GOP side, one of the top preppers—former Liberty University debate coach Brett O'Donnell, who advised the Bush campaign in 2004, John McCain in 2008, and both Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann in 2012, as well as Britain's Boris Johnson—is not involved at the presidential level this year.
With the 2020 debates nearly upon us, the debate teams have largely completed their coaching and prep. The candidates will step out onto the stage alone. What they say will help shape the outcome of the election. But as always, we won't know how well the debate teams have done until the rest of us begin our own quadrennial debate—about who won.