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Eye On Candidates
August 6, 2015

Different Debate Skills, Styles for GOP Candidates

In recent days a number of media outlets have offered previews of tonight’s debate between the top 10 Republican candidates, and at least one has also looked at the earlier event featuring seven candidates who didn’t make it onto the main stage. Here’s a piece in Politico (with an unfortunate headline) on the earlier event:

How to Win the Losers’ Debate

How can you not feel a little bit sorry for Rick Perry? Arguably the most successful governor—certainly the longest serving—of a major state crucial to whatever presidential electoral prospects the GOP has left, and he's relegated to the losers' round of the 2016 debates…. But the former Texas governor is not alone.  An impressive array of talent will be alongside him….

There's the only woman in the race, and one of the few with practical business experience that does not include firing Dennis Rodman on TV: Carly Fiorina. There's Gov. Bobby Jindal, another accomplished governor and a onetime top-tier vice presidential contender whose staunch conservatism and moving son-of-immigrants story should stand out…. And next to him will be Sen. Lindsey Graham, a seasoned legislator….

Then there's Rick Santorum, a finalist in 2012, who is about a point away from former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore….And let's not forget New York's George Pataki—one of the few if not the only Republican ever elected statewide in New York since the invention of the iPhone. No, there's nothing to be embarrassed about by being in this crowd.

While there is indeed a lot of talent in the warmup event, most attention will still be focused on the main event at 9 this evening on Fox News (not the Fox Network). And while there has been a lot of attention in media previews paid to what each candidate must do, there hasn’t been much given to the actual communication and debate skills possessed by each of the candidates, and what that might mean for the debate. The Leadership Project for America has compiled extensive profiles of all of the candidates, including their communication skills. Below are excerpts from each of the 10 candidates’ profiles that might give some indication of just how likely they are to have improved their standing as a result of their performance tonight.

Jeb Bush - Bush has been a highly sought-after speaker, giving numerous speeches to industry groups, local chambers of commerce, and health care conferences. Pundits on both sides of the aisle have long lauded Bush’s political savvy and strong speaking skills, often contrasting them with those of his presidential brother.

Bush’s reputation for being a skilled communicator did take a hit in May 2015 when he was asked what decision he would have made regarding the Iraq invasion based on what is known today, as opposed to what was known then. He first said he would have made the same decision, apparently based on his misunderstanding of what was being asked, then said he wouldn’t answer the question because it was a hypothetical, and finally clarified that he would not have authorized the invasion if he had been president and known then what is known today.

Bush has shown himself over more than two decades in public life to be an effective communicator, able to build coalitions that can help him advance his public policy aims, skills that would serve him well on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office. It has been more than a decade since he ran for office, however, and his flubbed response regarding the Iraq invasion suggests he will need to sharpen his skills to avoid future embarrassing gaffes.

Ben Carson - Carson is a sought-after public speaker, in political, educational, and medical professional settings. Although a skilled and experienced speaker, he is new to the world of politics and is prone to making controversial statements someone with more of a background talking about policy issues would avoid. For example, he has referenced both slavery and Nazi Germany in comments, and while he was unfairly criticized and had his words twisted by the media, an experienced politician would have understood such references are best not used.

Chris Christie - Christie is a charismatic and confrontational speaker who is sought after because of his proclivity to speak his mind, including challenging members of his own party as well as members of the public who have questioned him. However, these efforts run him afoul of his fellow leaders as often as they help him. He has publicly distanced himself from tea party adherents, even though he rose to prominence championing many of their ideals.

Christie has not shied away from taking bold policy positions. In April 2015 he proposed reducing and even eliminating Social Security benefits and increasing Medicare premiums for higher-income beneficiaries – entitlement reforms that many conservatives have long favored but that few politicians have been willing to advocate because of the perceived political risk.

Christie’s ability to win election in a “blue” state suggests a strong level of political acumen and an ability to appeal across party lines, although his style of campaigning may be uniquely suited to New Jersey and other East Coast “blue” states.

Ted Cruz - Cruz is a stellar speaker. One profile had this to say on his speaking skills:

Cruz also is a fabulous communicator and articulator of conservative principles.  Professor Alan Dershowitz, not noted for his historic sympathy for conservatism, said of his days at Harvard Law School, “Cruz was off-the-charts brilliant.” He won several different awards as the best student speaker in America, and Cruz was semi-finalist in the 1995 World Universities Debating Championship. 

He is a very effective and unflappable communicator of conservative values, and while no one was Reagan but Reagan, Ted Cruz is the best articulator of conservative values at the national level since Reagan. 

[Cruz held] the position of solicitor general of Texas and, at the time, was the youngest to hold that office in the country. During his time in this office, he authored more than 70 U.S. Supreme Court briefs and presented 31 oral arguments, eight of which were at the Supreme Court.

Mike Huckabee - Huckabee is a gifted and eloquent speaker. His background as a pastor serves him well in communicating with audiences, as does his extensive background in broadcast media. His debate performances in 2008 were generally considered to be very good, and he has little trouble articulating his views. In a 2016 presidential race Huckabee would likely be a significant factor in the debates.

One oft-voiced criticism of Huckabee is that he is “thin-skinned.” Arkansas-based media who covered his administration say he can be petty and vindictive, and he got into a public dispute with Glenn Beck after Beck described him as “progressive” because Huckabee had voiced support for Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity efforts.

He’s enormously telegenic and a gifted speaker….

John Kasich - Kasich is a reasonably skilled public speaker able to communicate effectively with his audiences, honed by his time as a host on Fox News. His speaking style has been described as “blunt” and he has been praised for a “tell-it-like-it-is” style, which could play well on the campaign trail and in debates.

He also has a reputation for having a short temper and a difficult personality. He has made a point of lecturing or criticizing Republicans, conservatives and allies who disagree with him, and he has a penchant for picking rhetorical fights that might be better avoided.

Rand Paul - Paul is a strong communicator, especially when he is talking about government surveillance of private citizens. The topic and the passion with which he speaks often excites not only many in the Republican base but also under-30 voters. He has spoken to a broad range of groups that transcend the traditional conservative bases around the country. In addition to his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he has also spoken to audiences at University of California-Berkeley and at Howard University, a historically black college. This broad public speaking portfolio has provided him the ability to practice and refine both his speech content and delivery.

Marco Rubio - Rubio is widely regarded as an effective communicator, one of the reasons he was selected to introduce Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican National Convention and to give the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2013. His introduction of Romney was termed “captivating” by The Washington Post, and his State of the Union response was generally well regarded although he was criticized for taking a drink of water halfway through.

He also possesses considerable political skills, as his come-from-behind win in the 2010 nomination fight with sitting Gov. Charlie Crist demonstrated. He performed well in debates and showed a good grasp of the facts regarding policies and issues.

Donald Trump - Trump is a skilled communicator with a distinct style. He is frank and blunt, and frequently self-promoting. His extensive experience as a media entity, first as a businessman and later as a reality TV star and frequent political commentator and interview guest, make him roughly as experienced as many politicians in terms of communication skills and handling the media. Trump has, in the past several years, spoken regularly to conservative and Republican conferences, such as the Conservative Political Action Conference. He typically seems to connect well to the crowd he’s addressing.

His communication skills may far exceed his political skills and ability to build support for his candidacy, however. His support for the “birther” movement, a long history of controversial comments (including recently suggesting a substantial number of Mexican illegal immigrants are “rapists”), and engaging in public feuds with generally respected conservative commentators such as Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg, all suggest a severe lack of political acumen and an inability to expand his support beyond those drawn to his celebrity and business background.

Scott Walker - Walker is not nearly as electrifying of a speaker as he is a politician. Like Midwesterners Tim Pawlenty and Paul Ryan before him, Walker has a difficult time inspiring with his words. For this reason, his appearance at national events have been relatively sparse, an issue he will need to address as a candidate sooner than later. He is a noted retail politician, and is very comfortable with crowds. His interviewing demeanor is relaxed, and he is not known to be gaffe-prone, although he did have to clarify and walk back comments made at the 2015 CPAC that seemed to compare the union protestors he faced in 2011 to ISIS.

Many of the Republicans standing on the stage tonight possess the communication skills that would allow them to dominate the event, or at least come out of it with an enhanced stature. Christie and Trump both have blunt, bombastic, aggressive styles, and Kasich has been known to as well. Huckabee and Rubio are simply among the most skilled speakers the Republican Party has to offer, able to project empathy and compassion better than almost anybody. Paul has a unique message that he has honed over time that will appeal to very specific segments of the party, and Cruz might be the best pure debater in American politics.

Bush and Walker, considered by most to be the two likeliest Republican nominees, could be overshadowed by any of those seven, although their status as frontrunners will give them the opportunity to shine as well. Both are skilled communicators and no more gaffe-prone than any other candidate. Which leaves Carson, also a skilled speaker but new to politics, as perhaps the candidate most likely to not leave much of an impression tonight.

The early event also features some impressive communicators – for example, Carly Fiorina is perhaps the most polished and focused speaker in the entire field, drawing rave reviews for her campaign appearances, while Lindsey Graham is a master of delivering sharp and humorous one-liners.

There will likely be a great deal of disagreement over who “won” the debate this evening, but there’s likely to be agreement on one thing – the debate and communication skills on display tonight might be the most impressive of any collection of candidates in a long time.