Republican elephant and Democratic donkey
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First debate highlights the ‘battle of the preppers’

Tevi Troy explains the history of important behind-the-scenes work that will set the stage for tonight’s first presidential debate.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden will take center stage for the presidential debates that begin on Tuesday, but the real work will be done by a small but influential group of experts and consultants who specialize in preparing them to enter the arena. For 43 months out of every 48, these individuals live their lives as lawyers, academics, politicians, and consultants. But for five crucial months, from June through October of a presidential election year, they shift gears and become the researchers, writers, trainers, and coaches for the American gladiatorial spectacle.

In the earliest days of the presidential debates, candidates not only failed to do debate prep but also frowned on its use.  …

… In 2012, Mitt Romney thrashed President Obama in their first debate. Romney’s beatdown led to speculation that Obama did not prepare sufficiently. Debate coach Karen Dunn made it clear to Obama that he needed to be tougher on Romney going forward, telling the president, “You need to punch him in the mouth.” Obama listened; he did better in the next debate and outright won the third. And in the 2012 debate between then-vice president Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan, Biden mugged, interrupted, and made faces, not unlike what Gore had done to Bush. In 2000, Gore was mocked for his performance, but the media generally gave Biden good marks for similar shenanigans 12 years later.

The most prominent debate prepster involved in the 2020 race is Ron Klain, who has counseled the Gore, Kerry, Obama, and Hillary Clinton campaigns. He is known for running a tight debate-prep operation. On the GOP side, one of the top preppers—former Liberty University debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who advised the Bush campaign in 2004, John McCain in 2008, and both Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann in 2012, as well as Britain’s Boris Johnson—is not involved at the presidential level this year.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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