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How to Win a Presidential Debate, According to Aaron Sorkin

Here's what Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could learn from "The West Wing" and "The Newsroom" in order to win tonight's presidential debate.

Photo by RIC FRANCIS/AP/REX/Shutterstock

RIC FRANCIS/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Most of Aaron Sorkin’s professional life has been spent making political debates — both personal and public — into poetically entertaining and informative exchanges. In “The West Wing,” he did it every week. Josh and Toby would fight it out until one was proven the victor or a compromise was reached. In “The Newsroom,” Will McAvoy would lambaste politicians, and his reports would often lead to various ethical conversations with his staff.

The point is, Aaron Sorkin knows a thing or two about winning a debate, and our current presidential candidates could learn from his work. We’ve examined the most pertinent examples of debate procedures, and the points below represent key strategies for winning a verbal battle. Apply them wisely.

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1. Don’t let third party candidates into the debate.

This one is fairly easy to do these days, considering how hard it’s been for independent candidates to gain traction. For better or worse, no one with enough of a following or a loud-enough voice has been clamoring to get Gary Johnson or Dr. Jill Stein into the presidential debates. But that’s not by chance — at least, it wasn’t by chance for the Bartlet campaign.

In “College Kids” and “The Red Mass” (Season 4, Episodes 3 and 4), a judge rules in favor third-party candidate Howard Stackhouse (George Coe) when he files a suit claiming it’s illegal to keep him out of the debate based on party prominence. Quick to recognize that Stackhouse would pull votes away from Bartlet — especially if he’s elevated to a comparable stature during a debate — Josh (Bradley Whitford) negotiates with Stackhouse’s team, led by the wonderful Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker), to get him to bow out.

He does, and the issue is avoided, but it goes without saying: Clinton and Trump don’t want you considering anyone else come November 8.

2. Don’t play your opponent’s game.

This piece of advice stems from C.J.’s matter-of-fact statement to Toby in “The Red Mass”: “When you can’t lower expectations, you only have one thing you can do: You have to meet them!”

C.J. (Allison Janney) was referring to how everyone expected Bartlet to trump his opponent, Senator Robert Ritchie (James Brolin), quite handily in the upcoming debate, so rather than come up with ways to make people think Bartlet was worse at his job, why not show them how good he really is? In other words, don’t cater to expectations. If you’re expected to lose, be better. If you’re expected to win, make sure you do. Apply that advice to 2016 as you see fit.

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3. Turn an attack into your advantage — or, in other words, be prepared.

The West Wing , Martin Sheen, Richard Schiff, Rob Lowe Film and Television

During the first scene of “Debate Camp” (Season 4, Episode 5), Bartlet is going through a mock debate with Sam (Rob Lowe) and one of his more candid responses (“Bite me”) starts an internal discussion over how best to answer the moderator’s question. Congresswoman Wyatt (Kathleen York) proposes that in answering the question, Bartlet could turn the conversation toward the drug war — a successful aspect of his own agenda.

This is a tried and true aspect of virtually all political speeches, but especially debates. While not all that hard to implement, it does take one key choice: Be prepared. Candidates need to prep for what’s coming so they can work the strongest elements of their agenda into the conversation. Again, simple stuff, but you’d be surprised who can ignore even the basics leading up to a presidential debate.

4. The question posed is as important as the answer given.

This might be the first bit of advice that no longer applies. During “Debate Camp,” the answers worked out by Bartlet’s team are carefully worded in order to specifically answer the question asked. Josh and the President go back and forth (briefly) over how a response is admittedly a good one, but it doesn’t fit the question. Nowadays, that doesn’t matter so much. Candidates shout over each other far more than anyone in Sorkin’s fast-talking stories, and often whoever is the loudest — and has the most widely applicable soundbite — is determined to be the winner. Is it fair? Reasonable? Right? No, but not everything can work like it does in “The West Wing.”

5. Simple answers are good answers, but don’t be afraid of being smarter.

“There’s no such thing as too smart.”

Never disagree with Leo McGarry (John Spencer). After spending the entire day of the debate searching for a 10-word answer on raising taxes, the Bartlet administration came up short. But leave it to their leader to come through in the clutches. Always slighted for being too smart to know what’s best for the common man, Bartlet called out Richie’s own 10-word response for being too simple: “Ten word answers can kill you in political campaigns, but what are the 10 words after that?” With great poise and clear communication, Bartlet showed why you want the smartest man on stage running the country.

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6. Choose the right clothes.

This may sound superficial, but the expression, “The suit makes the (wo)man” applies more than ever for nationally-televised debates. People are looking to judge you one way or another, so don’t give anything up easily — including your clothes. That being said, a screen-tested, focus group-approved garment isn’t as important as old-fashioned luck.

President Bartlet or, more accurately, First Lady Abby Bartlet proved as much when she diabolically cut her husband’s tie seconds before the debate. He had to steal Josh’s, hoping it wouldn’t look bad on TV, but that gave him just the boost he needed before taking the stage. Tie or no tie, it’s what he said that mattered (but he’ll take the luck).

7. Spin fast and spin hard.

Heading into the debate, C.J. enlists the help of a Republican, Asst. Secretary of State Albie Duncan (Hal Holbrook), to help spin a touchy talking point on trade as soon as the debate ended. Because Duncan is an authority on the subject and supports the President’s viewpoint, he agreed to back the opposing party. But his expert answer is far more complicated than C.J. wants him to tell the press…that is, until Bartlet goes out and proves complexity isn’t something to be afraid of.

The takeaway, though, is that you need spin. In today’s debate format, spin is all the more important since every fact is treated like an opinion (and vice versa), so no matter what is said on stage, odds are someone is willing to believe it was true, or at least a good point. Spinning things in your favor once the actual debate ends is key to convincing voters you “won.” If they say you won, odds are you did — which could be enough to win over a significant number of on-the-fence voters.

8. Above all, be ready for anything. (Did we mention you should be prepared?)

“A smart guy said the presidential elections are won or lost on one square foot of real estate: up here.”

So said the great Leo McGarry, and, even though he was in the middle of pranking Toby, the words still ring true. The point of the opening sequence — when the President pretended to suffer “a crisis of confidence” in order to get under Toby’s skin — was that Bartlet was so confidant going into the night that he was willing to joke around at the expense of his speechwriter. And guess what? Toby didn’t care about being pranked because he just wanted to win the debate. He knew Bartlet was ready — up there — and that’s what mattered.

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9. Don’t like the format? Change it.

Aaron Sorkin has long railed against the format of debates, arguing they should be run more like a courtroom than a “press conference.” As far as we can tell, such propositions began with “The West Wing,” when President Bartlet outlined new guidelines that eventually shaped his debate with Governor Ritchie.

“Two minute response, followed by a one minute reply: That’s not a debate,” Bartlet told C.J. “That’s a joint press conference. […] It’d be nice to be able to respond to what the other person has said and ask them a question. And the moderator should be empowered to press for an answer, just as a judge can of a witness or a member of congress in a confirmation hearing.”

Of course, like much of Sorkin’s writing, this scenario came up again in “The Newsroom,” when Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) spent weeks sacrificing important news stories to raise ratings so he could host a Republican presidential debate on ACN. When he got the meeting with the two GOP chairpersons, McAvoy and his staff pitched a new debate format.

“Questions have to be tougher,” McAvoy explained. “They have to be able to square their campaign rhetoric with facts. They have to be stopped when they’re not answering the question, and they have to be called out when their answers contradict the facts.

“We have to put the candidates on a witness stand,” he added. “There are no rules. I question a candidate until I’m done.”

The format allowed for opening statements, but McAvoy, during the mock debate run by his staffers, interrupted candidates when they weren’t answering the questions and wouldn’t allow them to finish their talking points if they became redundant, superficial or otherwise unnecessary.

McAvoy won over one chairperson, an old college buddy:

“If they know they’re going to be held responsible for shouting nonsense on the hill then they’ll stop shouting nonsense,” he said.

But he was overruled, and the debate went to another network where a more traditional shouting match could take place.

Now, it’s unlikely either of today’s presidential candidates, let alone political parties, would allow for such changes, but some of them should. As McAvoy argued and his friend agreed, this would give an edge to the most honest, straightforward and altogether Presidential candidate. So if the opportunity should someday arise, we’ll know who to consider based on who accepts the challenge.

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