Debate time: The candidates' version of the two-minute drill

Story highlights

  • Candidates have a short period of time to leave a lasting impression
  • Political experts: It's context and candidate that have the most impact
  • The longer debate format could expose candidates' weaknesses
  • Political experts: Post-debate spin will help determine the outcome

In the competitive arena, time matters. Football teams rehearse two-minute drills, Jeopardy contestants try to beat their rivals to the buzzer and in presidential debates, the candidates are given little time to make a lasting impression.

In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke less in each debate -- from at most five minutes to as little as about 20 seconds -- than did then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Polling showed that Obama won the debates, in some cases by double digits.

In the second debate of 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan cut into then-President Jimmy Carter's long-winded response to a question on health care with a simple "There you go again." In four words and just three seconds, Reagan suggested that Carter didn't know what he was talking about.

But don't let that fool you. When it comes to the importance of time management in the presidential debates, it's not clear cut.

"Whether one candidate speaks longer than the other is likely to not matter much," said Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.

Sometimes it's the candidate who speaks for a shorter period of time that can win the day.

"The thing about politicians is they like to talk, so they have long versions for everything," said Allan Louden, chair of the communications department at Wake Forest University. "When you're coaching in debates, the goal is to get them to say in one minute [what they would] in five."

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President Obama came up against his long-winded nature during a CNBC town hall event when then-Obama supporter Velma Hart told the president she was "exhausted" from defending him. He said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. "And I'm waiting, sir, I'm waiting," Hart said, thinking she would tee Obama up for a "whimsical, magical" response.

Instead of answering Hart's question, Obama talked around it for four minutes.

CNN's Howard Kurtz called it a "missed opportunity," in a Washington Post column.

Still political experts agree that time is only one part of the equation. It's the context and the candidate that also matter in the debates.

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And the context or the format in Wednesday's debate could cut both ways for Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The format, which differs from some past formats that kept answers and rebuttals short, will force the candidates to speak for longer periods of time on each question.

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In a 1992 debate, the longer format saw President George H. W. Bush glancing at his watch while an audience member asked the candidates a question, a move that put off many watching on TV and in the audience.

This time around, candidates will be asked six questions in segments of 15 minutes each. They will be given two minutes to answer each question and the moderator will use the balance of time to direct the discussion.

"They could actually debate [this time around] -- that could be interesting," Louden said, comparing Wednesday's debate to those in past election years which featured one-minute answers and two-minute rebuttals.

For Obama, whose campaign has been trying to lower expectations for the debate by saying the president struggles with being concise, political experts say the longer period of time could help his style.

"Obama tends to not debate in sound byte, but explain in paragraph form," said Bill Newnam, associate director of forensics at Emory University. "I think it ends up playing to Obama's benefit in that he has a longer time to talk."

But the format could also reveal the candidates' weaknesses, since they will be forced into a less scripted, longer response.

"[Obama's] job is really to not make mistakes," Nyhan said, explaining that the longer response time could leave Obama exposed. "So maybe that's good for Romney that Obama would have more time."

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For Romney, the longer discussion time could cause him to lose his cool, as he did in the primary debates when he came down on Texas Gov. Rick Perry for going over his allotted time.

"Romney's tendency is to not deal as well in an impromptu setting and to be thin skinned to direct challenges," Newnam said.

But, Newnam says, Romney's extensive preparation will benefit him.

"He has been very concise and precise in debates," Newnam said. "As long as he knows what he is talking about and is prepared for the questions [he will be successful]."

While presidential campaigns have their unexpected moments, Nyhan says, time management will not be a weakness for the candidates at the presidential level.

"The thing to remember about presidential debate is that these people didn't get here by accident," Nyhan said. "While neither Romney nor Obama is known to be an especially fantastic debater, these are skilled national politicians."

The moderator's control of the time also likely won't be problematic, Nyhan said.

"These moderators were chosen because both sides could agree on them, which means that both sides will try very hard to be even handed," he said, referring to the process through the Presidential Debate Commission that determines the moderators. While the campaigns don't choose the moderators, they are asked for input.

Instead, how the candidates come across, not the length of time they answer their questions, will help choose a winner, Louden said.

"Authenticity is what trumps," Louden said.

The next day, how the media and campaigns react may matter more than what happened at the debates themselves.

"In the end, the debates are about the post-spin," he said.

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