What to watch for in tonight's debate

Las Vegas gets ready for Tuesday night's CNN debate featuring GOP candidates for president.

Story highlights

  • Todd Graham: As a debate coach, I look for certain qualities in debaters
  • He says candidates should back up their assertions with facts, and go in-depth on arguments
  • He says admitting previous mistakes is a plus
  • Look for candidates who answer the question and are willing to argue, he says
Well, Todd, who won? I hear that question a lot after presidential debates. And with the sheer number of debates in the campaign for the Republican nomination, it may get to the point where everyone feels qualified to give an opinion as a debate expert.
But as an actual debate expert, I can tell you there is something of an art to determining who won, who blew it and who's still alive. Here's what you should watch for if you're keeping score at home:
Argument depth. Get beneath the surface. Seriously, I love the 9-9-9 plan. It's catchy, it rhymes and Herman Cain says it with such pleasure that it's hard not to like the idea. I've even instituted my own 9-9-9 plans wherever I can -- into my dinner recipes, into my golf game, and even into my workouts. But then a friend asked me how Cain's 9-9-9 plan would raise the same amount of revenue that our government currently brings in without increasing the burden on either the middle class or the poor. And I couldn't answer the question. I was so mesmerized by the catch phrase of the day that I failed to note that Cain had not gone into depth about his plan. You can do better with one simple test: Did the candidate talk in glittering generalities about their ideas, or did he or she provide specifics?
Todd Graham
Arguments back and forth. These are supposed to be debates, but the American public sometimes seems squeamish when people actually disagree with one another. I can accurately predict who most polls will say lost the debates based on observing the person who argued the most. We have to let the candidates argue with one another. No matter how much Newt Gingrich does not want to see Republicans disagree in these primary debates, don't buy into it. If it were up to Gingrich, debates would never have arguments or clashes. But these points of refutation and rebuttal are the best way for the candidates to distinguish themselves. Plus, once they begin to go back and forth, the discussion has a much better chance at getting to real depth.
Admitting previous mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, and for a politician to pretend otherwise is foolish. If candidates cannot admit mistakes and explain how they would do things differently in the future, then I don't believe they have learned. To win an overall debate, you should concede some smaller arguments within the debate. It allows you to gain the trust of your audience, which builds your overall credibility for more important points. If you can admit when you are wrong, then people are more likely to believe you when you say you are right. But that is only the first step. To really persuade us, you must both admit mistakes and then tell us how you have grown as a politician since then. For example, Mitt Romney says he made mistakes in signing into law mandatory health care in Massachusetts. What were those mistakes? He needs to tell us now exactly what he would do differently if he were governor again, and not just stick with the tired story about how he would repeal Obama's health care law. What is his core belief about mandatory health care?
Issues important to you, the voter. You won't agree with all the candidates all the time. So listen for "voting issues." What issues are important enough to you personally to make you vote for one candidate over another? Don't get caught up in the little things that you might disagree with. An ideal politician is a fantasy. In these Republican debates, listen for your hot button issues, whether they are jobs or foreign policy or government debt, etc. One of the keys to Ron Paul's popularity is the way he states his views clearly on big issues such as liberty, the military and the role of the federal government.
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Lies and inconsistencies. Listen for inconsistencies, either with previous statements from the same candidate, or with facts. In the last debate, Michele Bachmann stated that President Obama plans for Medicare to collapse so Obamacare can take over. This claim has been skewered by fact checkers, but we shouldn't need them. It seems completely false on its face, since there's no evidence to support it. We can't let candidates get away with making things up. Hold them to a higher standard.
Claims without proof. This is one of the worst parts of political debates. Due to the limited amount of time, or due to the unlimited amount of hot air, candidates sometimes make outlandish statements. All statements require backing. If they don't provide it, then don't believe them. Accept no excuses, even in this limited format. Rick Perry in the New Hampshire debate answered more than one question about jobs and the economy by telling us how he has a secret plan that will boost the economy, and that plan is somehow related to energy production. Come on. We had an entire two-hour debate about the economy and Perry did not come packing -- any proof that is.
Not answering the question. Please, just answer the question! We all know why politicians don't answer the question. First, they have a memorized short speech on a similar topic, and second, they don't know the answer to the specific question they were asked. Beware of candidates who continually avoid the question. If it is a habit, then they are probably weak on substance. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have been serial offenders in this category. Let's hope they improve.
Style over substance. Consider style less important than substance. Sure, style is important, but the scales are too heavily weighted on the wrong direction. We need to fix that by remembering one rule: Typically, there is an inverse relationship between the number of sound bites and the number of sound ideas. I'd like to say that Jon Huntsman is usually pretty good with his emphasis of substance instead of style, but we won't see that Tuesday night because he is boycotting the Nevada debate over a dispute about whether the state's caucus could infringe on the timing of the New Hampshire primary. It's hard to find substance when you can't find the candidate.
A lot of people say presidential debates don't make any difference, and the debates don't change people's opinions of candidates. But my experience says differently, especially when watching candidates from the same party debate several times against one another. On more occasions than I can remember, I have seen people in the general public switch candidates after watching a debate performance. Even with the prospect of a presidential campaign that could cost a billion dollars or more, much of it for advertising, old-fashioned debates still matter.