The Presidential-Debate Word Game

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images News;John Gurzinski/Getty Images News
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images News;John Gurzinski/Getty Images News

(The Root) — Every presidential election produces one memorable moment that historians and political junkies will remember for years to come. The 2000 election gave us a sighing, eye-rolling Al Gore whose body language toward George W. Bush seemed to scream, "I can't believe I'm actually in a close contest with this guy. You've got to be kidding me!" and turned out to be a godsend to Saturday Night Live.


Four years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama played into the worst-held stereotypes about him as arrogant and aloof when he dismissively told Hillary Clinton she was "likable enough" during a debate. Many of us are waiting with bated breath to see which unforgettable moment this debate delivers. Although we don't yet know who's going to deliver it, we do know one thing: We can expect to see certain words and phrases pop up over and over again.

How do we know? Because the candidates, their campaigns, their commercials and their surrogates have already told us so by using them repeatedly or in key moments. So below, a few of the words and phrases you can expect to hear tonight and in future debates. Feel free to keep track and see if these predictions prove correct. If you feel so inclined, turn it into a game with friends.
1. "Failure," "Failed" or Other Variations of the Word "Fail"
Who will say it: Mitt Romney
How many times: As many as possible
How we know: Because he has already said it a million times before. A Google search of Romney calling the Obama administration a failure produces 264 million results. Now, that doesn't mean the former governor has said it 264 million times, but he has said it enough to create that many hits, which means he's said it a lot and will continue to do so. It is a main campaign selling point: I may not be perfect, but I'm better than the other guy who's failing.  
2. "The Middle Class" or "Middle-Class Americans"
Who will say it: Obama
How many times: At least five
How we know: President Obama mentioned "the middle class" three times during his last State of the Union address, and he continues to reference it often on the campaign trail. And thanks to Vice President Joe Biden's recent "middle class" gaffe, Obama is sure to be asked about it tonight. Also, highlighting America's growing class divide, and particularly Romney's struggle to connect with Americans who do not share his privileged background, is one of the Obama campaign's key strategies. To be clear, Romney will likely reference the middle class, too — this group represents one of the largest voting blocs. But the GOP candidate also knows that doing so opens him up to attacks on his own wealth and his struggle to relate to middle-income Americans, so he is unlikely to bring them up on his own.
3. "My Family," "My Wife," "My Kids," "My Parents" or "My Grandchildren"
Who will say it: Both of them
How many times: At least twice
How we know: Because candidates always mention their families in debates. Doing so can soften a candidate, particularly when his spouse is more popular than he is, which happens to be the case with both Obama and Romney. Additionally, both men can use their families to illustrate policy points more effectively, such as the president discussing his own mother's struggle as a single parent and Romney discussing his father's struggle as a poor immigrant.
4. "Leader" or "Leadership"
Who will say it: Romney
How many times: Let's say eight (ballpark)
How we know: One of Romney's ongoing refrains has been "America needs a leader who … [fill in the blank with some variation of 'is not Barack Obama because he's failed'; see No. 1]." Some of the variations that we have already heard include an attack ad in which the Romney campaign asks of the president, "If he cannot lead his own party, how can he lead America?" Romney also generated headlines for saying the world needs "American leadership."

5. "Obamacare"
Who will say it: The moderator first. After that it's a tossup
How many times: Tough to call
How we know: Health care reform has been one of the defining issues of President Obama's first term and one of the most contentious, so it is impossible that a debate on domestic policy will avoid discussing it altogether. Despite the fact that Republicans initially coined the term "Obamacare" as a pejorative, Democrats finally embraced it at the Democratic National Convention, but that doesn't mean we should expect to see Obama voluntarily mention it tonight. There are clear landmines for both candidates in discussing the topic: Romney because he spearheaded health care reform on a state level as governor, and Obama because of how unpopular it has been with some — which is why it is a must-ask for any debate moderator.
6. "America" or "Americans"
Who will say it: Everyone
How many times: Too many to count
How do we know: Because every candidate says it, in every debate, a million times.
Let us know in the comments section if you think we missed anything.


Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

Share This Story

Get our newsletter