Of course, doing too little would be a mistake, too. On the eve of the first debate in 2012, President Obama declared that debate prep was "a drag."
An insider reportedly complained
that he didn't focus in practice sessions and that he failed to deploy some scripted one-liners in his confrontation with Mitt Romney. The result: Obama lost the debate and lost his lead in the polls.
As journalism Professor Alan Schroeder writes in "Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV," good preparation does two things. First, it shows candidates what to expect from their opponent. In 2000, Ohio Rep. Rob Portman played the part of Al Gore in George W. Bush's mock debates
. He ignored the rules, interrupted and even walked up to Bush and stared him in the face -- all things that Gore actually did during the real thing. When Portman tried to stare Bush down, however, Bush disarmed him with a kiss on the head. This he did not do with Gore.
Second, the prep prepares candidates for any and all possible questions -- and it's important to heed good advice. Schroeder notes that in 1988, Michael Dukakis was warned that he would be asked a tough question on the death penalty, and was advised to talk about how his father and brother had both been the victims of violent crime.
Dukakis, however, hated discussing crime in this way and, laid low by flu, grumpily did his own thing. CNN's Bernard Shaw asked him what he would do if Mrs. Dukakis was raped and murdered. Dukakis gave a wonky answer that had all the emotional sensitivity of a weather report. The night was lost.
That said, sometimes it's important for candidates to follow their instincts. President Ronald Reagan had a terrible debate in 1984
because he was overprepared. Aides stuffed his head full of facts and Reagan never convinced as a detail guy. His opponent, Walter Mondale, looked fitter and was funnier.
Afterward, Nancy Reagan demanded of the President's staff, "What have you done to my husband?" She took over prep for the next debate and ordered Ronald to focus on key points and to lighten up. Reagan prepared a fantastic zinger. When asked if he was too old for the job, he replied: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
It's smart to downplay expectations. Al Gore entered the 2000 election cycle with a reputation for being brainy and with encyclopedic knowledge. His practice sessions were a media spectacle. Ordinary voters from swing states were flown in to help him frame his answers
, and reporters were invited to watch the first few minutes of a mock town hall. Such was his attention to detail that rehearsal rooms were set to the exact temperature
that could be expected during the real thing.
By the time Gore met Bush, the press had already decided that he was going to win -- a conclusion that many pundits endorsed the next day. But while Gore was intellectually titanic, he was also overly aggressive and rude. He failed to appreciate that TV debates are as much about image and visual cues as they are rhetoric.
Little was expected of Bush. By not making a mistake and being polite, he won the hearts of the viewers.
On balance, then, it is best only to give candidates as much detail as they can reasonably handle and to hint that they expect to lose. Also, there must be room for spontaneity: It's better to sound flawed yet human than perfect but robotic.
The first debate of 1992 was a three-way between President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot. Clinton is generally regarded as one of the great debaters, yet he didn't win his initial encounter. Perot, who thought preparation was selling out
, was the clear victor. He just turned up and spoke from the heart -- and the studio audience was wildly enthusiastic.
That's what we can expect Trump to do later this month. Indeed the very fact that Trump is widely seen as the lesser debater against Clinton is why he'll probably win.
He can't repeat his primary debate performances, which were like watching a bull rampage through a china shop. The audience figures were huge, yes -- but the purpose of those encounters was to "break through" and establish himself as a personality. Trump has now done that. He'll never need to do it again.
Instead, Trump must strike a careful balance. He doesn't want to be overloaded with facts, but he does need to convince voters that there's more to his politics than just the wall. And while attacking Hillary in personal terms on trust is probably a vote getter, other areas require sensitivity. His handling of Clinton's bout of pneumonia, for example, was appropriately gracious
So his model debater should be Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan had a similar reputation as being shoot-from-the-hip, even unsafe. He won a debate against President Jimmy Carter by exuding authority and geniality
. The moment voters can imagine a candidate inhabiting the White House, he or she is one step closer to being there.
Clinton's job, by contrast, is much harder. She's expected to do well on the basis of intelligence and experience -- but she doesn't have her husband's famous charisma. And while identifying Trump's flaws should be easy, establishing her own grand narrative will be much harder.
This late in the contest, Clinton has still not defined what she is running for. It might be too late. Her best hope, then, is to be like Mitt Romney in 2012: ruthlessly forensic in attack. Many others -- Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio -- have tried and failed to put Trump in his place. Now it's Hillary's turn.