2016 Presidential Debates: What We’ve Learned About Staying on Message

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By: Kate Warrington, Communications & Digital Strategy committee member

Over the past several weeks, millions of Americans have tuned into the presidential debates to watch Republican nominee, Donald Trump and Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, debate their way to the White House. While many Americans may already know who they’re voting for this November, the debates are key in winning over voters who are still undecided.

As the past three debates have proven, staying on message is essential to a candidate’s debate success and could be what sways undecided voters to their side. Therefore, candidates must be well prepared and be able to answer tough questions with responses that reinforce his or her campaign message.

The rise in technology and social media has made it even more important for the candidates to be on message in this election. Anything a candidate says can easily become a tweet one second later or be featured on a video circulating social media. A strong statement can be used in favor of a candidate while a poor statement can do a lot of harm.

Clinton demonstrated the importance of being on message during the first debate held on September 26 at Hofstra University where she maintained a strong upper hand during most of the debate. Clinton came prepared to speak of her policies geared at helping working, middle class Americans. On the other hand, Trump spent more time talking about the problems at hand and responding to Clinton’s remarks. Many felt that Trump missed opportunities to attack Clinton and emphasize his own message, which hurt his overall performance.

During the second debate held on October 9 at Washington University, however, Trump came out stronger and more prepared to attack Clinton on issues such as her email scandal, Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation. Doing so enabled Trump to more effectively articulate his campaign’s message in regards to corruption within the political system. Clinton, however, also gained momentum when she attacked Trump on his sexually explicit comments about women in the release of the Access Hollywood video.

This past week’s debate held on October 19 at the University of Nevada provided candidates with one last opportunity to deliver their message. Both candidates answered questions regarding immigration, foreign policy, the economy and the 2nd Amendment. As the last debate concluded, Americans were likely to be happy with their candidate’s performance as both Clinton and Trump answered questions and attacked one another in ways that were consistent with their campaign messages.

While it is difficult to say for certain if these debates have influenced undecided voters, recent polls indicate that Clinton has risen in favorability since the first debate. The debates may not be the only factor contributing to this, but Clinton’s debate performance is likely to be a strong component of her recent lead. Now with only about three weeks left until Election Day, candidates must build off of their post-debate momentum until the final results come in.

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