Q&A: Jennifer Granholm on the Secrets of Debate Prep

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Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 6, 2012

Tina Fey isn’t the only woman who has done a notable impression of Sarah Palin. In 2008, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm played the Alaskan in mock debates with Joe Biden. As this cycle’s presidential candidates prepared for Wednesday night’s face-off, TIME chatted with Granholm about what goes on behind those closed doors — and why the Current TV host has predicted that Obama will lose the first matchup.

What is the most important part of preparing for a debate?

Definitely making sure that the stand-in is armed with the toughest facts, the hardest questions, the most uncomfortable issues that the candidate has to be prepared to respond to. It requires a good amount of research, to make sure he’s armed with everything that might possibly come up.

So is reading briefing books and anticipating questions more important than the time spent sparring with a stand-in?

There is no substitute for being on your feet, getting the time and the feel for how to respond.

How did you become the Palin stand-in during Biden’s debate prep in 2008?*

The campaign called and asked whether I would do it. I was the only other female governor with kids, and I knew her because we served together as governors, even though her time [in office] was fairly short.

Besides having similar biographies, what makes a good stand-in?

It’s important to have a good relationship with the candidate. It’s like reading a terrible opposition research memo about yourself in front of a whole bunch of people. It’s just an unpleasant experience, so having somebody that you’re comfortable with is very important.

When you played Palin, what were you concentrating on — mannerisms or tone or subjects she might turn to?

I wasn’t Tina Fey. But I did watch all of her debates. I studied her positions. I knew where she was coming from, in terms of being connected to her state and feeling like she was there as an advocate on behalf of Alaska, being independent. I internalized a lot of that. And when we were actually doing the mock debates, I wore a red suit and had my glasses on. Oh, yeah. You betcha.

How secretive is the debate-prep process?

It’s very closed-door. You want to make sure you have an environment that makes the candidate feel as comfortable as he can, in light of the fact that you’re going to be putting him through the wringer. It’s an intimate experience, though there are quite a few people there.

Who’s in the room besides the candidate and the stand-in?

You’ve got researchers and people who know the policies. When Biden was selected, he suddenly had to get up to speed on what then Senator Obama’s positions were, because he was going to be grilled about that. So there was a blending of teams — some people from the Biden campaign and some people from the Obama campaign. There are people there who can sort of marry their policies, as well as the folks like their chief of staff.

Will that be a big advantage for Biden and Obama this time around, knowing each other so intimately?

They won’t have the same issues, in terms of there being daylight between them, like there was in 2008. And there’s an opportunity for them to go after Romney and Ryan for that very reason, because Romney hasn’t fully absorbed all the positions of Ryan, and vice versa.

You put it in that order — Romney absorbing Ryan more than Ryan absorbing Romney?

Ryan’s positions have been so clear, so out there, so available, so controversial.

You recently predicted that Obama would lose the first debate. Then you suggested that the media might assign him a loss whether he deserves a win or not. Can you explain that?

The first time, I mentioned two reasons why I think he’s going to lose. One is, he’s not in debate shape in the same way that Romney is. But more importantly, the media does not like a lopsided race, and it’s appearing to be lopsided at the moment. So in order to sustain the race, I think there will be a narrative of the comeback-kid Mitt Romney.

The candidates have been busy playing the low-expectations game. Are you just helping Obama be self-deprecating?

No, I’m just looking at it purely from who’s in practice and who’s not in practice … Part of that might be that the incumbent is confronted, on this national stage, in a way that he is not usually confronted … I don’t discount that he’s a good speaker, but he does speak in paragraphs, and debates are not the place to do that.

This time, you’ll be analyzing the debate as a TV host. How much of the debate’s impact comes from the debate itself, and how much is from what the media say about it in the days following?

The media obviously has a huge role in characterizing it. A lot of everyday citizens watch the debate and think the candidates did an O.K. job, then come down on one side or the other afterward depending on what they hear. But the debate certainly can build momentum or stop momentum. That’s really where Romney’s opportunity is.

People can easily find news outlets that will pick the winner they want. Does that mean we perhaps shouldn’t concentrate on who won or lost?

No. It’s all part of the conversation. People don’t want to hear a false equivalency. People don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, they both did fairly well.’ People in general want to know that somebody won and somebody lost. And they want to be smart enough to be at the watercooler the next day and know who that is.

* This year’s mock-debate playbill: Ohio Senator Rob Portman is playing President Obama, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is playing Mitt Romney, Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen is playing Paul Ryan, and former solicitor general Ted Olson is playing Joe Biden.

MORE: Special GOP Issue: Party of No

41 comments
Sachi Mohanty
Sachi Mohanty

It perhaps doesn't make much sense to say who won or who lost.

What probably matters is who was able to make the case for themselves more forcefully, clearly, and forthrightly.

That should (hopefully) persuade the (vanishingly?) few percentage of undecided voters -- who are after all the reason for all this.

http://explainingindia.blogspo...

Twitter: @sachi_bbsr:twitter 

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

I laughed at the thought of prep for a debate with Palin.  Having conversation with patients in a psych ward would have been more valuable.

sacredh
sacredh

Sarah had something in her eye that night.

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

What - you missed her mouth?

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

It's like the exorcist coming to straighten out the demon-possessed child, only to be overcome by the same demons.....

But remember, you set me up!

sacredh
sacredh

nfl, I don't believe for one minute that the TP would ever own up to being the reason Mitt loses. They'll say that Mitt lost because he wasn't a "true" conservative and insist that a TeaBagger gets the nomination in 2016. Unless the TP loses some seats this November and alot of seats in 2014, they'll never believe that it's possible to be too conservative.

.

Btw, I can believe that you said that. You've been a bad influence on me. I was practically a saint before I started talking to you. Shame nfl. SHAME!

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

I can't believe I said that....

If things go according to plan,on 11/7 there's going to be a lot of finger-pointing on the part of the neocons (TP) who have hijacked the party.  If Republicals want to win back the White House they will have to appear more mainstream.  Marco Polo won't help them win Hispanics either.

sacredh
sacredh

nfl, I've just been one happy camper. It seems like every day brings another bit of good news for Obama and the democrats and the proof is evident by how hysterical our right wingers are getting. You'd think that black helicopters are circling their houses and they're trying to get one last message out before they're dragged away and forced to give up their keyboards.

paulejb
paulejb

Stay off the medications?

"Former Obama Czar on Granholm's DNC Speech: 'Must Have Had Some Medications or Something in Her System' "

http://www.weeklystandard.com/...

mjshep
mjshep

 I say we invade Canada, annex it, declare British Columbia the 51st state and thereby retroactively make Granholm a native born citizen, and have her become President in 2016.  As a former beauty queen, Berkeley Phi Beta Kappa and Harvard Law grad, she'd not only be the hottest President ever, but one of the smartest.

southernbell52
southernbell52

The most important person in the debate is Jim Lehrer. He's an excellent journalist and we can be assured he will not ask stupid questions such as Bernard Shaw's querry of Dukakis re the death penalty.

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

El-Rushbo considers Lederer to be a far left-wing Democrat. Which is better than his opinion of the other moderators, who are characterized as far, far left-wing Democrats. Perhaps he's blind in his right eye, and can only see things on the left.

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

Who gives a @!$# what Flush thinks.

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

Millions of TFMs like pauljb, unfortunately.

Terry Clifton
Terry Clifton

I want some of the stuff she was smoking at the DNC Convention..She was jacked up!!

Tero1
Tero1

Maybe if you ever had to work for something or actually accomplished anything in your life you would understand what passion is all about.

Curious_Quiche
Curious_Quiche

They're gonna wanna give Mitt the gold medal for remembering to wear pants and speak English SO BAD. They'd get away with it too, but they've forgotten that our boy Mitt has got to defend all of the multiple nonsensical positions, equally morally repugnant, that he has held all through the primaries and the early campaign without getting flustered or making a gaffe, something he was unable to do even with softball Foxite questioning, and he has to do it while staring down a man whose greatest weakness is that HE IS TOO ERUDITE AND WELL INFORMED TO MAKE A SNAPPY IMPRESSION ON A TV AUDIENCE. They're asking Mitt to scale K2 in tighty-whities and that participation ribbon they want to paint blue so badly is gonna look pretty pathetic hanging on whatever scraps of skin and gristle are left after Mitt tears himself apart and the President chews on the pieces.

southernbell52
southernbell52

I also predict Romney will be declared the winner and pretty much for the reasons Granholm gives.

All Romney has to do is look relaxed and SOUND intellegent. I doubt the substance of his words will be examined (the same thing happened with Palin, who got good marks from the pundits overall because she didn't create major gaffes and was able to appaer confident).

Sue_N.
Sue_N.

I think the media is so desperate for a tight race that they'll give Romney the win if he shows up fully dressed, doesn't p!ss himself on stage and answers in English.

Also, they don't much like a president who gives them headaches by making them do the thinking thing. It's just easier to say "he's too professorial!" and give the win to the guy who doesn't bother them with facts and figures.

Razor Man
Razor Man

Now you've gone and done it.

Paul Dirks
Paul Dirks

putting him through the ringer

Of course you mean "wringer" One makes a pleasant noise; the other squeezes the cramp;p out of you.......

ERenger
ERenger

I'm an ERenger, and I can do both. 

sacredh
sacredh

Points finger and yells "MULTI-TASKER!".

sacredh
sacredh

Nice catch although a case could be made that the spelling was correct.

Paul Dirks
Paul Dirks

It's one of those age things. We're raising an generation who have never even seen a wringer on a washing machine though I guess they still come on mop buckets.

Sue_N.
Sue_N.

And now you're assuming people still use mop buckets in the Age of Swiffer.

Laura L. Connolly
Laura L. Connolly

@filmnoia:disqus we can be assured he will not ask stupid questions such as Bernard Shaw's querry of Dukakis re the death penalty. Since I started with my Online business I Earn $7O every 16 Minutes. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don't check it out...KingofProfits2012.webs.com

kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

Getting your "t1t in a mop bucket" loses much of its idiomatic charm...

sacredh
sacredh

Thanks for the article Kathy. It was enjoyable. Granholm's honesty was refreshing and blunt. Predicting that Obama would lose the first debate sounds like spin at first, but her reasoning is sound. Mitt has been in over 20 debates during the primary season and Obama was unopposed. I watched most of the republican debates and Mitt struck me as just a hair over the compentent side. Maybe that was because he was debating an Insane Clown Posse and not worthy opponents. I guess we'll find out tomorrow night.

filmnoia
filmnoia

I like Granholm, but I'd rather see an article that establishes some clear metrics to what a "win" would be in the debate. For the MSM to say that it's a "win" for Willard because he shows up and  prepped for every possible question with a canned answer that doesn't answer the question at hand is not considered a "win" in my mind. Short of a meltdown, the concept of a "win" is amorphous, and imo, flabby thinking.

sacredh
sacredh

A Romney win will be like horseshoes in my opinion. Close is good enough.

sacredh
sacredh

I think that's the case too. Many in the media want a horse race even if one of the horses is a nag.

outsider2011
outsider2011

 I agree with the assessment though; the media would not like Obama to win because he's already pulling ahead in the polls.

Unless of course he totally blows Romney away - which i don't think anyone is expecting.

If it's obvious then it's harder to maintain the narrative.

It'll be interesting to see if it affects the polls at all though.

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

Wait - Huge Hugie may be right??

Sue_N.
Sue_N.

Don't worry, Foggy. Even if Willard is given the win, he'll find some way to blow it.