The presidential debates offer an exhibition of personalities with a plethora of speaking styles.  What, if anything, do the personas the candidate’s display tell us about their leadership capabilities?  Can anything meaningful be gleaned from the on-stage exchanges?   Consider these typical debate style profiles and what they reveal about the men and women behind the podiums:

Impromptu Iconoclast

Bernie SandersBernie SandersTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Top aide Jeff Weaver lays out Sanders's path to victory MORE has more important things to do than prepare for a TV debate.  The Impromptu Iconoclast’s disdain for rehearsals causes enormous headaches for campaign staff.  Creative in devising excuses to avoid practice time, when they show up it is grudgingly.  While mock debate opponents lay out arguments they doodle and daydream.  Supremely confident in their ability to get by on wits, the iconoclast is vulnerable to attack.  Sanders came up short defending his position on guns in the first Democratic primary debate.  The press stokes these rebels with a cause anticipating fireworks. 

Super Primed


This debater was immortalized by Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in the movie Election.  Disappointed that their obsession with detail isn’t shared, they have difficulty connecting with voters. The ultimate pointy-headed, intellectual Michael Dukakis was asked if he would favor the death penalty for someone who brutally murdered his wife, he said no.  Voters questioned whether the tin man had a heart.  Sticklers for rules, pre-debate negotiations are elevated to an art form.  But they can’t abide time limits because they mistakenly believe people want to hear whatever they have to say.  Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold Gore2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally Deregulated energy markets made Texas a clean energy giant Gun safety is actually a consensus issue MORE was programmed to deliver a treatise rather than a sound bite.  Their foibles are often reinforced by Ivy League handlers, who egg them on as they envision themselves in the West Wing.  The media is bored to tears and often takes cheap shots.

Show Boater

These Barnum & Bailey hams know they are the greatest show on earth.  They live for the spotlight, love the audience adoration.  Born entertainers they relish risky humor, which often leads to trouble.  This causes consternation for consultants, but Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE will tell you he does not fear controversy like politicians do.  The Show Boater is usually well-intentioned but lacks self-awareness.  Joe BidenJoe BidenEight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Hill Reporter Rafael Bernal: Biden tries to salvage Latino Support Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report MORE continued to debate with himself whether the Democratic Party needed his folksy charm to save the day.  Anyone not in their loyalty camp shakes their head in wonder at their diva-like tantrums.  The media can’t get enough, providing exorbitant coverage.   

God and Gumption

It’s a chicken/egg situation: overly scripted and thus scared senseless or scared senseless and overly scripted. These debaters are in over their heads relying on God and gumption.  They either lack confidence, or as with Sarah Palin – their confidence has been shredded by the pressure of relentless scrutiny. They walk out on stage with their fingers crossed behind their backs. While possessing core skills these debaters are beyond coachable because they’ve been over coached.  The result can be the classic deer in the headlights look of Dan Quayle.  The trust in their handlers is shaky at best, as they sense their loyalty has moved on to the next campaign.  Unable to help themselves, they end up taking bad advice from family members.  Media is poised for the train wreck.


Lincoln Chafee and Rick Santorum believe they occupy the moral center on stage but in reality are simply taking up space and airtime.  Considered gadflys by debate sponsors they create logistical difficulties for the host and the moderator.  They demand space on stage and whine when not allowed to talk.  On the Democratic side they are dropping like flies –  “prosperity through peace” candidate Lincoln Chafee whose lackluster performance was spoofed on late night TV and James Webb who thought the debate was rigged against him.  The Wanna-Bes can create big trouble for front runners because they feel free to attack.  Chafee was the only candidate to raise the email scandal.  There’s nothing to lose because their supporters are true believers.  Media ignores them until they do something sensational.     

Message Disciples

This debater is so truly, deeply committed to their oratory they have come to believe it.  In an attempt to redefine conservativism, George W. Bush promised to be a compassionate conservative.  Their conviction is persuasive even when reality or facts don’t support what they say.  Carly Fiorina isn’t backing down on the Planned Parenthood videos.  Competitive by nature, this trait can cause them to slip and sound mean-spirited with opponents.  Recall when then-Senator Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Obama's high school basketball jersey sells for 0,000 at auction Dirty little wars and the law: Did Osama bin Laden win? MORE said Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Republicans plot comeback in New Jersey MORE was “likeable enough.”  However, mistakes are rare and they are a media consultant’s dream.  The Message Disciples embrace the need for repetition – messages they’ve mastered and deliver in ways that stick in the public mind.  They dazzle the pundits and bring voters to tears.  It’s heady stuff and often hoodwinks the media.

Pros Who Know

The Message Disciples think they are seasoned Pros Who Know, but they lack the vote-getting gravitas that comes from life experience.  Pros Who Know understand what’s at stake and prepare appropriately.  It isn’t about flaunting ego or raging ideology.  They come in with a big picture strategy designed to generate momentum.  Mitt Romney’s buoyancy in the first presidential contest in 2012 caused many voters to take a second look at his candidacy.  They take the experience of having been in the big show before to the next level.   Hillary Clinton is wearing her battle scars like a badge of courage saying:  “The issue is not whether or not you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.”  They frequently exceed media expectations, but rarely are given credit. 

It’s up for debate how useful the debate stage is in selecting the most qualified person to lead. While no one forum is sufficient, the debates remain one of the best ways to see through the smoke and mirrors beyond the candidate’s carefully maintained facades.

Debate coach Christine K. Jahnke (@ChristineJahnke) has worked with more women candidates and elected officials than any other trainer.  She is the author of The Well-Spoken Woman.