I have a proposition regarding Tuesday night’s Presidential debate. You can be the first to tell your friends who won with a scorecard of eight categories of likeability I introduced in my HarperCollins book last year: The Turn-On: How the Powerful Make Us Like Them – From Washington to Wall Street to Hollywood.
Before I share my rubric, let me confirm what you know about debates already. They are face-offs between Presidential nominees based on their likeability rather than on substance. In 1960, the first-ever televised Presidential debates set the pace, and the lore has been correct ever since. Jack Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the debates because Kennedy came across on television as younger, handsomer and more charismatic than the sweaty and ill-shaved Richard Nixon. On radio, without the jarring visual difference, the policy-facile Nixon act was perceived to have won, but by then television had become the dominant medium.
Kennedy and Nixon had few policy disagreements that would have warranted either scoring a knockout punch on substance. Both men were tax-cutting anti-Communists running at the height of the Cold War. But Nixon’s sweaty, even untrustworthy, appearance reinforced the perception of him as “Tricky Dick” that began with his successful 1950 U.S. Senate race against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford similarly reinforced unlikeability perceptions of him when he mistakenly said the Eastern Europeans don’t live under Soviet domination. Factually it was a ridiculous statement, but Ford was referring to Eastern Europeans’ sense of pride. Though the leap in logic was tortured, it had nothing to do with Ford’s intelligence. He was a graduate of Michigan and Yale Law School. Still, the malapropism reinforced the perception of Ford inculcated by Chevy Chase, his impersonator on “Saturday Night Live,” as a bumbling oaf who became President by accident.
Ronald Reagan’s famous “There You Go Again” to President Jimmy Carter in 1980’s sole debate reinforced Reagan’s jocular personality, filled with good humor, while communicating to Americans that Carter was an out-of-touch President who resorted to caricature because he hadn’t a clue as to how to fix the stagflation economy.
When Bill Clinton walked toward a questioner at the 1992 town-hall debate when George Bush looked at his watch as if he had something better to do than to talk to the American people, Clinton reinforced his “I feel your pain” empathy and Bush looked more out of touch than Jimmy Carter on his worst day.
Hillary Clinton won all three Presidential debates in 2016 on both substance and likeability. In fact, she is the only Presidential nominee in any general election with multiple debates to have won all of them. In fact, she demolished Trump in each of them and made zero mistakes in any. But Hillary Clinton, as we know, faced sexist double standards in which voters are threatened by women who project perfection in knowledge and competence. Only women candidates enter the political boxing ring, win every round on points, yet have judges in the audience ultimately declare the loser the victor.
It all begs the question: What constitutes likeability in the first place? Fast forward to this Tuesday night’s debate. Joe Biden and Donald Trump will prevail if one of them is clearly dominant over the other in a majority of the eight likeability traits I present in The Turn-On.
In the book, I describe how falling in like with a public figure is like falling in love with a romantic partner. We judge public figures just as we judge dates who occasionally become our spouses: Through four successive stages of likeability that have two symbiotic likeability traits at each stage. Again, eight likeability traits in all.
First, we ask ourselves whether the date, public figure the Presidential candidate is captivating. Does the person hold our interest? After all, no candidate can persuade any voter unless the candidate has the voter’s interest. Even we Democrats concede that Donald Trump in 2016 was captivating, if only a captivating train wreck. In 2020, the Trump Show is less captivating because voters have Trump fatigue. Joe Biden’s number-one task in these debates, starting Tuesday, is to captivate voters so that he blows Trump’s moniker of “Sleepy Joe” out of the water.
That’s where Joe Biden has the easiest threshold for winning the debates that any Presidential candidate in the television era has ever had. Thanks to Trump’s incessant mocking, voters simply want to see Biden’s vitality. Undecided voters tell me, as they no doubt tell many of you, they sure as hell don’t want to vote for Trump but wonder if Biden up to the task.
Ironically, many of us who have seen Biden speak in person – often at New Jersey Democratic events, where he spoke as the U.S. Senator from adjacent Delaware – found him to be an over-the-top speaker. To watch Joe was to see his fists pounding and face getting red, accentuated by screaming that made you want him to tone it down. Still, we loved it. That is the Joe Biden we need to see Tuesday night. Forget pre-debate advice to him of “Joe, that’s too much.” Nothing will be too much in terms of Biden rebutting Sleepy Joe.
Biden must also captivate voters by branding Trump as Trump has branded Biden. When Trump goes low, Biden must go Jersey. The most effective branding of Trump would be “President Chaos” and “Never My Fault Trump,” two attributes of Trump’s that swing voters who still don’t question Trump’s honesty cannot refute as easily. If Biden wants to label Trump a liar, “Delusional Don” will work just fine. Again, Americans want to see our good old Uncle Joe come alive. As a personally beloved figure, he has the political capital to attack without appearing to have crossed the line.
Hope, along with captivation, is the other likeability trait in my first pair of two. Biden must convince Americans of a more hopeful future under him than under Trump. In this, Biden has been performing exceptionally in recent weeks, beginning with his acceptance speech at the DNC and in his television commercials extracting from that speech and others. Biden has presented a point-by-point plan for COVID recovery rooted in science that can’t help but instill hope. He must reinforce the plan, again point by point, in the debates.
Authenticity and relatability are the next two traits in my likeability paradigm. These traits have been Biden’s strongest throughout his career. Biden insiders will have made a terrible mistake if they have coached him to tamp down his feistiest debating style out of the fear that he makes mistakes when he gets carried away. Voters have always forgiven Biden for his flubs because the authenticity from which they arise matters more.
As for relatability, the best way Biden can communicate his own, unrivaled in politics, is to speak with what I call “crafted colloquialisms” in The Turn-On and in my courses on political campaigns. Crafted colloquialisms are soundbites based on colloquial phrases that come across more as conversational markers than as pre-crafted soundbites, even though they are such.
Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again,” which he spoke as an everyman, was the classic. Joe Biden’s line during the DNC, “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” was similarly phenomenal and worth another mention Tuesday night. Biden would be smart to invoke other crafted colloquialisms to challenge Trump’s veracity, such as “Mr. President, are you still relying on that same old trick?” and “What on earth are you talking about?”
The third pair of likeability traits in my paradigm are protectiveness and reliability. These are the two traits on Trump has lost the most credibility since 2016. By repeating “chaos” at every turn to describe Trump, Biden can inculcate Trump’s unreliability beyond repair. As for protectiveness, on which Trump is excruciatingly vulnerable in this COVID age of 200,000 deaths, Biden should issue a challenge to Trump: “Will you, Mr. President, consent to an independent scientific review without your involvement of the efficacy of a vaccine?” Of course Trump will say no – and when he does, Biden’s media team should produce a commercial with Trump’s response to be aired the next day.
The final pair of likeability traits in my paradigm are perceptiveness and compassion. If you were to poll any 1,000 Americans, 750 of them across parties and ideologies would judge Biden to be the more compassionate candidate based on empathy, in turn based on the tragedies he has survived. But how do you make Biden’s compassion more relevant in a debate?
Biden must issue another challenge to Trump: “Mr. President, will you commit tonight to withdraw the Administration’s fight to repeal insurance for preexisting conditions by withdrawing from Supreme Court’s argument against Obamacare on November 10th?” The question is not just a matter of compassion for Americans with pre-existing conditions. It is also perceptive of Americans’ greatest health care concern.
Trump, of course, will lie in response. That’s where Biden, with a crafted colloquialism at the ready, must pivot Trump to say: “Mr. President, doesn’t reality matter to you at all? How long can you hide in the detachment of your alternative universe? I’ll ask you again: ‘Will you commit right here tonight to withdraw the Administration’s fight to repeal insurance for preexisting conditions by withdrawing from the Supreme Court’s argument against Obamacare on November 10th?'”
As Joe Biden has shown so many times throughout his career, these techniques are in his soul. Let the kid from Scranton have at it. Let him be the fighter he has always been, unrestrained yet authentic because he cares. By being the scrappy brawler many of us in New Jersey have seen at his best, Joe Biden will have everything to gain, and Donald Trump, everything to lose.