In high-stakes debate, Obama may use lessons from past advisor
Alexander is a law professor at Seton Hall University, former local elected official in Washington, D.C., and a current New Jersey State Senate candidate in the 34th District.
Alexander specializes in election law and helped run debate preparations for Ted Kennedy in 1988, Bill Bradley ’65 in 2000 and for Obama in the 2008 primaries. He said he sees debate prep as a way to exercise his academic mind and personal interests.
“It combines my policy wonk nature with my lawyer, law professor, debating side,” Alexander said.
Alexander said tonight’s debate is particularly important, since he thought Vice President Joe Biden edged out Republican challenger Rep. Paul Ryan during last Thursday’s debate, but he thought Romney beat Obama at the first debate two weeks ago.
According to Alexander, candidates typically prepare for debates by extensively reading a “debate book” prepared for them by their staffs.
“The debate book is like the Bible for debate prep,” Alexander said. “Wherever you are, on the plane, on the road, before you go to bed, pick up the book and you have everything you need.”
He explained that these books have two main sections. The first contains facts and background on past statements and the opponent. The second contains the rhetoric framing the issues as well as potential one-liners to use.
“If they ask you a question about jobs, it outlines what you need to say to convey the message that you will create jobs, that your vision is best for America,” Alexander said. The candidates have been poring over their respective books for months now, memorizing every little detail.
Once the candidate is familiar with the issues, Alexander said, the real practice begins.
“You go into a room with a limited number of people and you get hammered with questions from the staff until you perfect your answers and that one key phrase,” Alexander explained.
The final phase is the rehearsal.
“Like with anything, you practice the pieces and then you put it together,” Alexander said. “Someone plays the moderator, someone plays your opponent and you don’t stop for 90 minutes.”
While he acknowledged that Obama was not at his best two weeks ago, Alexander said he expects a good night for the incumbent, citing the debate format, Obama’s personality and the chattering class’ expectations.
“The President is extraordinarily smart, extraordinarily dynamic and very engaged,” Alexander said. “He did not show that in his last debate, but he has a chance to show this this time, especially in the town hall format.”
He added that Obama needs to connect with voters during the debate by looking directly into the camera more often. This, he said, was one of Biden’s strengths during the debate last week.
Alexander said he thinks Romney will perform well tonight, but not as well as during the first debate. To win this debate, he said Romney needs to stay in control and be fluid and dynamic.
Beyond his specialty in debates, Alexander’s academic work largely focuses on campaign reform and the interaction between law, politics and government. At the University, he is working on a project examining government through the eyes of a freshman Senator.
Nathaniel Persily, another LAPA Fellow and a visiting professor from Columbia University, has known Alexander for about seven years in an academic context. Persily noted that he has been impressed by Alexander’s ability to remain objective.
“Obviously he is a Democrat and active in the Democratic Party,” Persily said. “But while we all have our political views, as an academic, he is able to remain objective.”
While he does not expect a blowout in the debate and recognizes his partisan tendencies, Alexander said he tried to remain objective in picking his winner for tonight.
“The President will be the winner in this debate,” Alexander said. “He connects to people, he likes to hear stories and he does well in this format.”