For the first time, six women will be in a major-party presidential debate. Activists say they’re great role models, but they also need to tread more carefully than the men — research shows female politicians are judged more harshly than their male counterparts, and there is already evidence of gender bias shaping the Democratic presidential primary.
I recently called up Democratic debate coach Christine Jahnke to talk about what advice she’d give these women in the Democratic primary debates Wednesday and Thursday. Her main takeaway: If you want to get noticed, interrupt a man.
But that could be difficult given the just-released debate rules. Candidates will only have 60 seconds to answer a question and 30 seconds for follow-ups.
So Jahnke and I had a second chat about what she could recommend to all the candidates, but especially the women, to get noticed in such a short amount of time. Our conversation is below, lightly edited for clarity and length.
The Fix: So how have the debate rules changed your advice?
We talked last week about the possibility of interruptions, but with the time limit, I think something like that is almost impossible.
So, possible tactics that some of the female candidates might choose to deploy — one will be a female candidate challenging another female candidate. If that were to happen, that’s something we know the media would focus on. And then, of course, it will be the first time a woman has been able to challenge another woman in the debate.
And this second tactic might be more risky, but will any of the women try to throw [former vice president] Joe Biden off balance? I was thinking back to 2008, and Sarah Palin had that moment before the debate even started — she smiled, shook his hand, and said, ‘Is it okay if I call you Joe?’ That was surprising and unexpected and became a little bit of a distraction for him.
Given that Biden is having some difficulties on issues that matter to women in particular, this tactic could be possible. But it could backfire, and because of all the double standards and stereotypes for women, it could easily be labeled as heavy-handed.
What advice do you have for candidates to talk quickly in their 60 seconds but not come across as “shrill,” a stereotype women are often labeled with when they show emotion?
There are only two people on the stage who have done this before. [Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden have both been in presidential debates.] So for candidates doing it for the first time, it’s the ability to handle their nerves. I think male or female, they’ll get an adrenaline rush, and it clearly impacts one’s vocal control, and that’s when people tend to speed up or the pitch will start to rise. The voice could be something that makes any candidate risk sounding hesitant or unsure of themselves.
I work with female candidates to go slow and low, to very purposefully slow your pace and lower the tone a bit, because that will add meaning or gravitas to whatever it is you’re talking about.
Since there’s so little time to talk, will there be even more emphasis on the visual? And if so, is there any statement to be made in women’s outfits?
I would expect they will all be in dark suits or red jackets. Why vary from the norm? These are all substantive people, they have policy points they want to make. The color they wear will be determined by the backdrop. Oftentimes, it has a combination of blues.
Would you recommend these women go rogue and try to talk over their time limit?
I can’t really see that happening. There are five moderators who are all going to want to shine. God bless [MSNBC host] Rachel Maddow, I love her, but how long will it take her to ask a question? And the clock will be ticking.
I don’t expect there will be any kind of free-for-all. That would just be a mistake, because a candidate could come off looking bad, out of control.
Any final takeaways?
These six women onstage are evidence of tremendous progress on the Democratic side of the aisle. Someone such as myself who’s been doing this for so long, we’ve been building the bench for over 20 years, and we have it now. We actually have a bench.