Presidential Debates Viewers’ Guide

As the presidential candidates prepare for the second of what one workplace authority describes as a nationally-televised job interview, what adjustments will each candidate need to make in order to improve his chances of being hired (or re-hired in the case of President Obama)?  Just as in a real job interview, the final hiring decision may not be based on who looks best on paper.

“In the real-world job market, the person with the best credentials, skills and experience is not always the person hired for the job.  It often comes down to who is most liked by the hiring manager, which is why interview performance is so critical.  The same could be said in a presidential election,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. 

“Certainly among undecided voters, debate performance will be a significant factor in making their choice.  While some will base the choice on specific elements of the candidate’s platform, the vast majority will make their decision based on intangible and highly subjective factors, such as which was most likable or seemed most trustworthy.”

“From a job-search perspective, President Obama has the most improvement to make for tomorrow’s second round of interviews.  Many of the issues that political pundits highlighted in their analysis following the first debate are the same types of issues that would sink a traditional job candidate: the lack of energy; unfocused, rambling responses; facial expressions that conveyed arrogance or exasperation; and just an overall sense that he did not want to be there,” noted Challenger.

“Governor Romney also has some things to work on for the second interview.  He established good rapport in the opening five minutes, which is really important.   However, he will need to offer more details about his proposals to build trust, particularly since the other side has been vocal about the truthfulness of his statements.  He could also benefit from citing specific examples of past achievements to support his qualifications.”

So what should the nation’s hiring managers (i.e., voters) be looking for as the candidates take the stage for their next interview?

Did the candidate answer the question?

Many politicians are masters at talking around an issue without ever directly answering the question posed.  When this occurs, viewers can only assume that the candidate does not have an answer or is unable to articulate it.  

Does the candidate seem to have an agenda?

Some politicians will take a question about tax cuts and spend 90 percent of their answer talking about health care simply because they were bound and determined to voice their views on that issue.  The unwillingness to break from a predetermined agenda on the part of a candidate should send up a red flag among viewers.  It sends the message, “The question raised is not important, so I am going to talk about what I believe to be important.”

Did the candidate provide evidence to support claims?

Statements like, “I support family values” or “I am for strong state government” are meaningless without specific examples and/or figures to support them.  If statistical or anecdotal evidence is not provided, the viewer should only take such statements at face value.

Does the candidate seem distracted, uninterested?

Viewers should be on the lookout for candidates who are fidgeting, looking around instead of maintaining eye contact, yawning, glancing at a clock or watch (as the first President Bush did in the middle of answering a question during a 1992 debate).  These nonverbal cues tell the viewer that the candidate would rather be somewhere else.

Does the candidate talk too much?

Some candidates attempt to provide as much information as possible so as not to risk leaving something out that could prove favorable among voters.  Everyone knows that the issues facing the nation are complex and can rarely be boiled down to a couple of minutes in a debate.  However, candidates should be able to get to the heart of a matter and deliver a clear, concise message.

Did the candidate interrupt the debate moderator?

Such behavior demonstrates a significant lack of respect for authority and an inability to listen.  Mutual respect and listening skills are vital in political office where leaders are constantly being asked to hear other people’s views. 

Did the candidate’s answers contain inconsistencies?

Viewers should be listening carefully to the candidates for any conflicting ideas in their answers or stances on the issues.  Contradictory statements and other discrepancies could be evidence that the candidate is merely saying whatever he or she thinks will please the specific audience or he/she might be trying to cover up weaknesses.

Did the candidate ask for the job?

In a job interview, the hiring manager is looking for evidence that the applicant is truly interested and enthusiastic about the prospect of working for the company.  Viewers watching the political candidates should pay close attention to whether they come right out and ask for your vote.  Most will.  As for those who do not, perhaps they never wanted the office in the first place.

Does the candidate seem prepared?

Political candidates should be well versed on all types of questions that might be posed.  Lack of preparation on the campaign trail strongly suggests that a candidate would be equally unprepared to meet the issues and challenges that face the office he/she is seeking.



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