Why Do the Candidates Take So Many Notes During Debates?

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Oct. 16 2012 6:58 PM

Much Ado About Noting

What are candidates writing down during the debates?

President Obama, left, listens as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, speaks during the Presidential Debate.
President Obama, left, listens and takes notes during the first presidential debate

Photo by Michael Reynolds/Getty Images.

President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney will face off in a crucial town hall debate at Hofstra University in New York on Tuesday. Obama was criticized after the last debate for spending too much time looking down and taking notes rather than staring at his opponent. What are candidates actually writing down?

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Their opponents’ points, their own responses, or just about anything to avoid making faces at their opponents. Note-taking is valuable to candidates, many of whom picked up the habit in law school, for structuring their responses. However, just as often candidates turn to their notes simply to have somewhere to look while their opponent attacks them. President Obama has been known to use this strategy before, such as when he debated Hillary Clinton and was described as “tightening his mouth and taking notes to avoid her gaze.” Later on during that campaign, John McCain was known to mask his anger using the same strategy. Note-taking has been a controversial issue since the first presidential debates, in 1960. After their third appearance together, Richard Nixon accused John F. Kennedy of breaking the rules by reading from prepared notes. Kennedy denied that he had violated any rules, and ABC, which had aired the debate, refused to take sides. Nixon insisted, “I’m not angry about it,” but the New York Times noted that “his face was rigid, his lips taut, and his voice rose as he continued talking about the use of notes.” He went on to claim once again that he was “not complaining. … But before the next debate, we had better settle on the rules.”

The rules concerning note-taking have become more and more detailed. By the Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale duels of 1984, debate rules stated that “No prepared notes or prompting devices of any kind may be brought into the debate,” though they went on to declare that “during the debate, however, notes may be taken.” For the next round of debates, between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, rules specified that each candidate could scribble “on the size, color and type of paper each prefers.” Rules were a bit stricter in 1996, when Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were each required by contract to submit their own chosen stationery and pens or pencils to the debate commission beforehand; the commission’s staff were the only people authorized to place those papers and writing utensils on the candidates’ lecterns. The town hall debate that year at the University of San Diego faced potentially jeopardizing last-minute negotiations when the Dole campaign requested that the candidates stand behind lecterns so that Dole could still organize his thoughts on paper. The campaign cited the candidate’s war wounds, which left him in paralyzed in one arm, but the Clinton campaign insisted that “no substantive changes [would] be acceptable.”

This year’s debate rules, which were obtained and leaked by Time magazine, are more detailed than ever when it comes to scribbles. Under Section 5c, the agreement says that “No props, notes, charts, diagrams, or other writings or other tangible things may be brought into the debate by any candidate, including portable electronic devices.” It goes on to specify that “prior to the beginning of the debate, the Commission will verify as appropriate that the candidates have complied with this subsection.” The penalty for violation is simple: “If a candidate uses a prop, note, or other writing or other tangible thing during a debate, the moderator must interrupt” to explain the violation. Still, as long they don’t write on them beforehand, each candidate is still allowed “the size, color, and type of blank paper each prefers” and “the type of pen or pencil that each prefers.”

Still, the ever more detailed rules haven’t always prevented further controversy. Before the final presidential debate in Williamsburg, Va., in 1976, first lady Betty Ford stepped to the podium during an afternoon tech check and scrawled an illicit note to Jimmy Carter: “Dear Mr. Carter, May I wish you the best tonight. I am sure the best man will win. I happen to have a favorite candidate, my husband. Best of luck, Betty Ford.” For the 1992 vice presidential debate, aides to Dan Quayle sought approval to have him read passages from Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance. Gore representatives agreed, but only on the condition that their guy could bring in a potato. (Quayle had famously misspelled the word potato earlier that year.) The matter was soon dropped. Some left-leaning blogs accused Romney of sneaking a cheat sheet into his first debate with Obama—evoking Sarah Palin in 2010—but further analysis of the video revealed that the small white object was just a handkerchief. Even just last week Rep. Steve King of Iowa was caught with notes written on his hand during a congressional debate, though King says it was just a reminder from his wife to smile.

Obama wasn’t the first candidate to get criticized for looking down at his notes too much. After the vice-presidential debate of 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was criticized for staring not at the camera or her opponent but down at her legal pad, making her appear cowed by George H.W. Bush. The vice-presidential debate of 2004 was particularly noted for the amount of note-taking, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards “scribbl[ing] furiously on their pads, occasionally exchanging wary glances, then looking away.” The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley wrote that “they looked like two strangers endorsing checks at the bank.”

Candidates usually keep their notes to themselves, but after last week’s vice presidential debate, a close-up photo of Biden’s notes began to travel around the Web. His doodles included bullet points reading simply, for example, “Egyptian people” and “no apology.”

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.

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