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Fight club: New debate rules for the Trump era

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In this age of reality show politics, midterm candidates will face the new quirks of political debating this fall, like President Trump wannabes, the desire to engage in real-time fact-checking, and a slew of insults and nicknames.

The big picture: "Debates are much more confrontational now," said Ron Klain, a debate-prep guru for every Democratic presidential candidate back to Bill Clinton in 1992."The emphasis has shifted from persuading undecided voters to motivating your own supporters, and showing your supporters you'll fight for what you believe in."

To help candidates adapt, Klain and John Neffinger, a messaging expert and debate coach, today will share their new debate survival guide with scores of Democratic campaigns and committees.

  • Axios has a first look at the 10-page memo, an update of an advice guide Klain wrote in 2006, then has updated in off-year cycles.

The new edition has 40 tips and tricks. Four of the juiciest, adapted for Axios readers:

1. Debates today are pugilistic encounters: There is no playing for a tie.

  • The debate “judges” — the media (old and new) and the voters — have come to see debates as a competitive exercise, not just an information delivery opportunity, and they are looking for a winner to crown and a loser to shame.
  • “Staying above the fray,” “just getting my own message out,” and “pretending like my opponent isn’t there” are not viable debate strategies.

2. Debating a Trump wannabe: Many Republican candidates are patterning their political performances after Donald Trump: arrogant, antagonistic, filled with insults and nicknames.

  • Your Republican opponent may have ridden such a strategy to victory in his/her GOP primary debates.
  • We are skeptical that approach will do well in general election debates.
  • If you face a wannabe-Trump, don’t get rattled: You can turn his strength into a weakness.
  • Klain told me the way to do that is: "Be prepared to combat canned lines, keep a calm demeanor, and listen for the openings — when they're swinging wildly, that leaves their body open for counterpunches."

3. Nine times out of 10, the winner of the debate is also the person who seems to be enjoying themselves more.

  • This will be stunningly effective in the face of Trump-style tantrums.
  • Make a note at the top of your paper on the podium that reminds you to stay in a good mood so that a small, easy smile shows.
  • That small smile shows you’re a “happy warrior."

4. You are not running to be the editor of Politifact: It can be tempting to make correcting such errors and deceptions the essence of your debate strategy. But that can be a mistake.

  • The audience expects politicians (i.e. both of you) to bend the truth, won’t necessarily believe your word over your opponent’s, and won’t relate to you if they can’t follow your argument.
  • Your opponent may be lying specifically to try to upset you and get you off your message.
  • Always consider: Is the most powerful/effective/important response to what my opponent has said a fact check? Or is a counterattack, substantive rebuttal, or pivot a better use of time?

Read the full memo:

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