Debate coach: Just the facts, please, candidates

Story highlights

  • Todd Graham: Democratic candidates improved in debate: Sanders clearer, Clinton more compelling, O'Malley more forceful
  • Downside: O'Malley at times too emotional; Clinton, Sanders both caught out by fact-checkers, which hurts credibility, he says

Todd Graham is director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won national championships for three years, and he's been recognized twice as the national debate coach of the year. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Several years ago, our debate team lost to UCLA's top team, on the same argument, at consecutive tournaments. I'd had enough. I called a meeting and made a rule: Don't lose, ever, to the same argument more than once.

Todd Graham
If you lose a debate, I expect nonstop research on that topic, that argument and that problem. Never again will we lose for the same reason.
This rule relates to Saturday night's Democratic presidential debate. It was the third debate for the Democrats, so many of the candidates' positions have already been covered and hashed out.
    What adjustments did the candidates make in their strategy and presentation? What data from previous debates did they mine? Let's begin with where they were previously having trouble.
    In previous debates, Bernie Sanders used the words "revolution" and "socialism" too liberally to convey what he was offering, but with poor explanation. The politically charged terms stood out more than his ideas. Saturday night, he had no such problem. His economic positions seemed reasonable, and even though he used the word "radical" a few times, it's a much softer -- even cooler -- term than revolutionary.
    Sanders' handling of the discussion on gun control was his biggest improvement, by far, especially since the first debate, where he got hammered on the issue. Not Saturday night. He fought back, and successfully, defending his state of Vermont, which has a strong pro-gun constituency (although Sanders got some facts wrong about how big that constituency is), while defending his record on guns (it includes, incidentally, voting against the Brady Bill).
    He responded sharply to an allegation from Martin O'Malley, saying, "Do not tell me I've not shown courage in standing up to the gun people," citing an election he lost for standing up for tighter gun regulations. This was particularly effective.
    As for O'Malley, he had a tough time in the first debate with meekness, and while he improved in the second debate, he still lacked a strong persona to match his opponents. But Saturday night, O'Malley showed real emotion, and seemed to be discovering his stage presence. However, he probably oversteered. There were times where his excessive emotions played against what was happening at that moment and made him look out of place. Sanders actually said "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Calm down," to O'Malley during an exchange on gun control.
    Another excessive emotional response from O'Malley came after Hillary Clinton and Sanders made nice about a controversial campaign data breach that was exposed just prior to the debate. After they dismissed the issue, O'Malley, in a swing and a miss, complained about bickering back and forth in Washington politics. It was clearly rehearsed, and even more obviously out of place in that instant, with his practiced anger and frustration. Maybe next debate O'Malley will have his Goldilocks moment with stage presence and pathos -- juuust right.
    As for Clinton, in the second debate she was not compelling when discussing Wall Street and the accusation that she's in the pocket of big business. Saturday night, she made a much better argument (remember, a few weeks ago she said it was because of 9/11 that corporations liked her, and that wasn't her finest moment).
    This time Clinton kept her defense simple with only two points. First, she asserted, she was currently being attacked by hedge fund billionaires, and second, she said, she receives more money in donations from students and teachers than from corporations. This would have been a way, way better response -- if it were accurate.
    CNN and others have fact-checked her claim that she has received more from teachers and students than from corporations, Wall Street or people in the financial establishment. It doesn't check out (or at a very minimum, Clinton has some explaining to do). If it is false, then her answer about campaign financing will do her more harm than good.
    In the long run, whatever small approval you'll get in a debate from winning a point will be overshadowed by claims of misinformation and deceit.
    But wait, there's more. She also said that Trump's anti-Muslim statements were being used in ISIS recruiting videos. Fact-checkers' verdict: No proof = false. That's unacceptable.
    And it's not just Clinton. Assertions from Sanders and O'Malley were also vetted in multiple fact-checking columns after the debate and came up short many times as well. Sanders may have made a better showing on gun control, but some of his statements were just flat out wrong on the facts. Again, this is a credibility buster.
    In debates, more so than in public speeches or advertising, truth gets tested. Maybe not right then and there, but in an Internet-driven media world, inaccurate statements can't hide for long. It's one of the reasons debates are held to a higher standard, and rightfully so.
    But the first line of defense ought to be your fellow debaters, and they need to get better at calling BS when they hear it. I hope to see more of that in future Democratic (and Republican) debates. Besides, it makes for terrific viewing.
    In general, the candidates did improve in some important ways, but they need to continue upping their game. Why? In sports you can't run the same plays every time, game after game. Your opponents will figure out a way to beat you. The same is true in any form of debating
    Here's hoping questioner David Muir also progresses, after consistently being rolled by the more assertive candidates while attempting to moderate his first presidential debate. His performance was either embarrassing (starting the debate after a commercial without Clinton) or intrusive (interrupting so much and badly as to prevent the audience from understanding anything). So, David -- follow Todd's rule No. 1: Don't make the same mistakes again. You'll be better next time, I'm sure of it.