The Q & A document

by Site Author

Michelle Nunn, a Georgia democrat, hopes to be the next junior senator from Georgia. But that dream was possibly dashed last month, when someone on her campaign leaked a secret campaign memo to the press. The 140-page memo was written for her by campaign consultants. It describes the strategy behind her campaign so honestly that it is clear the writers never thought it would be public. As the New York Times put it, the memo “offers a glimpse into the calculations and absurdities that drive modern campaigns.”

What I find most interesting about the memo is that it makes clear how scripted the candidate ought to be. It emphasizes that the candidate needs to stay “on message,” while reporters do all they can to catch the candidate going off message.

And how do you keep your candidate on message? You write a “Q&A Document.” As the memo puts it:

“The candidate’s biggest tool in staying on message is the Q&A document. The document contains the rhetorical tools the candidate needs to navigate every politically tricky question back to message. There are times when the answers may need to be updated depending on shifts in the political landscape, and the communications department is charged with updating this language in consultation with the candidate and the strategic team.”

Not only is the document written and re-written throughout the campaign, but the candidate needs to constantly rehearse talking points from the Q&A document. The memo advises the candidate to practice Q&A at least an hour and a half each week.

“The Q&A is only as good as it is internalized by the candidate. It is a document that requires study and practice. It’s up to the communications department to schedule time to go over the stump speech.”

And so this is what it takes to be a politician in modern America, not just hours of fund raising, but also hours of “internalizing” talking points.

To a very naive viewer, political debates and interviews with campaigners seem off the cuff. After all, the candidates don’t carry notes on camera. But make no mistake, they are thoroughly prepared.

That said, I’m not sure anyone could face a televised debate or interview these days without prepared comments. I remember, as a graduate student, taking a class with a top professor, someone who will likely win the Nobel prize one day. The professor’s lecture notes were incredibly detailed; he essentially wrote a textbook just to prepare for teaching the course.

I wondered at the time why someone so smart would need to have written such careful notes to teach material he already understood deeply. Much of the course was devoted to papers he had written.

In retrospect, he needed notes the way that a candidate needs their Q&A document. It’s very difficult to speak intelligently without having already thought through one’s comments. Certainly when the stakes are high, as they are on the campaign trail, no one can improvise. But even when the stakes are much lower—as they are in the classroom—a professional needs to be just as prepared.