Analysis of the first Presidential Debate

By Steven Kalani Farias, Director of Forensics

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016

As a Director of Forensics, the beginning of a new debate season is always exciting because it is an opportunity to see how much your team has grown over the summer and offseason. It is also an excellent opportunity to reintroduce yourself to judges and public figures who may have seen your team previously but are getting to see a new and improved version of that team. This means that the first month of practices my coaches and I will focus on two key themes: 1) highlighting fundamental themes that are central to the question of the debate and 2) being aware of the temperature in the room/temperament of the audience. As the season grows, these two foundations have lasting impacts on our success.

Similarly, Monday night represented the start of a new debate season for both presidential candidates. They too needed to focus on highlighting fundamental themes that are central to their campaigns and the debate while also being aware of the temperature in the room and the temperament of the 13% of undecided voters. For Donald Trump, this meant it was an opportunity to embolden voters by solidifying the notion that he is a business oriented candidate with a bold and successful plan to rebuild the country. For Secretary Hillary Clinton, it was an opportunity for her to convince voters that even if they refuse to believe that she is the Commander in Chief they deserve, she is indeed the leader they need. Ultimately, viewers watched a one-sided debate where Secretary Clinton successfully parried personal attacks by Donald Trump while also demonstrating her Presidential credentials. See my grades below:

Secretary Hillary Clinton: B+

During the primary debates last November, I noted how Secretary Clinton had consistently and successfully pivoted to her experience and future policies for the country when challenged by then-contender Senator Bernie Sanders. Monday night, Secretary Hillary Clinton faced similar challenges from Donald Trump and, for the most part, she pivoted successfully by using a classic debate strategy: the “backward-step-pivot-forward”

The back-step-pivot-forward is a classic debate strategy that, when used effectively, turns defensive postures into offensive answers. When challenged on a point, a debater begins by fervently defending their position to soften the perception of a strong challenge (backward-step). Having defended the position, the debater then turns their potential weakness into strength by showing how their advocacy or policy will strengthen and solve that weakness (pivot-forward). Secretary Hillary Clinton consistently and successfully used this strategy to neutralize Donald Trump’s attacks and then seized the opportunity to advocate for her policies.

When Donald Trump challenged her plans for trade and criticized NAFTA, Secretary Clinton successfully defended her position by referencing her vote against CAFTA, her acknowledgement that free trade is inevitable and necessary since the United States is only 5% of the global population, and plans for working to improve the Trans-Pacific Partnership while also upgrading the country through investment in an energy grid and green technology. This enabled her to look strong regarding the economy and her policies that would upgrade the country and the economy. When Donald Trump challenged Secretary Hillary Clinton on the Iran Nuclear Deal, she robustly defended herself by pointing to Iran’s nuclear progress when she began negotiations to the success of the actual Iran deal. She then pivoted to discussing the need for diplomacy and world leadership that assures our allies of our commitment to security. On police shootings and policies for violent crime, she defended shifts in community policy away from Stop-and-Frisk before pushing for community involvement and training. Donald Trump attacked her policies and past decisions, and each time Secretary Clinton softened the blow with a strong defense and seized the opportunity to highlight fundamental themes of her campaign as answers to those challenges.

If I had one criticism for Secretary Clinton, it was that she often sounded condescending, and failed to be aggressive against the antics of Donald Trump. I kept waiting for her to strike back as Donald Trump consistently interrupted her. The only time she tried, she called Trump crazy and the comment did not land with authority. She did not take an opportunity to chastise his tactic of interrupting her and although she was poised as she talked through his antics, it came across at times as disconnected. Given the misogyny that often is pervasive in public debates, I am not surprised; still, I believe that in the next debate Secretary Clinton will be quick to hammer Trump for his antics.

Donald Trump: D+

Donald Trump failed in this debate and receives a poor grade because his debate strategy had a fundamental flaw: he allowed his opponent to cast his ambiguity as a reflection of negative character and poor political strategy. As I explain to my debaters, knowing the temperature of the room means knowing that pithy statements or quick one-liners will only go so far. There needs to be substance and they need to be able to identify what matters. Donald Trump failed at this because he allowed Secretary Clinton to attack his uncertainty without a proper response. There are two primary examples.

First, when questioned on his tax returns, Donald Trump was vague about why he had not released his returns. He could not answer Lester Holt’s question for most of his response, until he stumbled upon the line, “I’ll release my tax returns when she releases the 3,300 emails she deleted.” This drew a raucous applause given the occasion and was an opportunity for Donald Trump to capitalize on the obscurity of Secretary Clinton’s major criticism. What was in those emails? How could she have been so negligent? Instead, he allowed Secretary Clinton to incite a negative reaction to questions such as: What does he have to hide? Is he not as rich as he claims? Has he not paid his taxes that would have supported citizens and the troops? This moment is THE moment I believe Donald Trump lost the debate. The biggest issue for voters is Secretary Clinton’s email scandal and instead of taking advantage of this, Donald Trump allowed her to make it a reason to doubt him.

The second example revolves around preparation. When criticizing Secretary Clinton for a response that seemed contrived from previous stump speeches, Donald Trump allowed Secretary Clinton to posture on her preparedness not just for the debate but “for the presidency.” In one move, Donald Trump allowed Secretary Clinton to turn his fundamental campaign theme from 30 years of broken policies to 30 years of preparation. Again, because Donald Trump was being vague, Secretary Clinton was able to exploit this and turn Trump’s ambiguity into a negative. Moving forward, I would expect Donald Trump to be more aware of the debate he is in the middle of, understand the temperature of the room and audience, and make more direct criticisms of Secretary Clinton.

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