Will Low Expectations Give Palin an Edge in Tonight's Debate?

People aren't expecting much out of Sarah Palin tonight, and that's exactly the way the McCain camp wants it.

Let me preface this by saying how much I hope I'm wrong. And I might well be, so that's good. But consider ...

Palin has become a national laughingstock by flailing her way through "getting to know you" questions about her background and her knowledge of issues she doesn't know much about. Many people are anticipating more of the same at tonight's debate. But debate questions are different: they don't ask what the candidate knows about an issue, they ask how the candidate would handle the issue, what policy approach they support.

To good Democrats, this may seem like a subtle distinction: after all, how can you explain your policy if you can't explain the issue? But that's exactly the kind of thinking that causes Democrats to lose debates to much less knowledgeable foes. "Winning" this kind of debate is not about demonstrating you're smarter than the other guy/gal, or even that you'd pursue better policies. The swing voters you're trying to win over don't follow politics closely, and by definition don't have strong preferences for the policies of one side or the other. Winning the debate is about connecting with them emotionally, showing them that you like people like them and that you're tough enough for the job.

So what does a good debate answer sound like? Start with that emotional connection: tell a story about how the issue you were asked about affects regular people, either something you heard on the trail, or better yet something personal. Ideally, you spend most of your 90 seconds here, because this will hold voters' attention and convey that you care. Don't have a good specific story? Just talk with some feeling about how and why people care about the issue. The point here is to demonstrate that you share voters' concerns.

Only after you've won their hearts do you answer the question - at least, sort of. Start with a few words of general principle that no one could disagree with. This makes you look sympathetic and strong, the candidate of common sense. Then offer a couple lines about specific policies that would further those aims, just enough so no one accuses you of dodging the question. Tack on a dig at your opponent to put them on the defensive, and you're done.

Does Palin have folksy stories? You betcha. Can she memorize a few talking points about each of the dozen issues she might get asked about? Sure thing. Can she deliver a barbed line mischaracterizing her opponents? No doubt.

Not only do standard debate questions work in Palin's favor, she's also helped by a regimented debate format, because unlike in the wide-ranging interviews she has flubbed, there is usually much less room for follow-up questions to try to pin her down. Put all this together and you see it was no fluke that Palin did well in her gubernatorial debates.

So what would happen if Palin did okay, or even a little better than okay, in tonight's debate?