Debate coach: Who won the Flint Democratic debate?

Clinton and Sanders battle over auto industry bailout
Clinton and Sanders battle over auto industry bailout

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Clinton and Sanders battle over auto industry bailout 01:32

Story highlights

  • Debate coach Todd Graham grades Clinton and Sanders by their ability to seal deal with supporters and steal opponent's voters
  • He says Clinton did better at this, dinging Sanders on auto bailout vote; Sanders, though, improved his pitch to African American voters

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 his.

(CNN)When my debate team is being judged by a panel of critics in intercollegiate debate, the first thing we do, way before the debate begins, is analyze the panel of judges. Based on the arguments we will present, we try to predict the judges who will vote for us, the ones who will vote against us, and who's on the fence. My mantra for our teams before these debates: Seal and steal.

Todd Graham
I'm grading the Democratic candidates in Sunday's debate on those two criteria. Since both candidates are looking to strengthen their position in the polls, both debaters, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, should be focused on maintaining their base -- that is, not losing voters who they think support them -- while at the same time attempting to poach a few voters who are in their opponent's demographic.
    It was an excellent debate, with both candidates succeeding on the first criterion. But I'm not sure they did well enough in the second. Even though it's unlikely either stole very many votes, the quality of argument was high -- and reversing a voter's mind is quite difficult, which is why both candidates received higher than average scores.

    Clinton: B+

    Seal: Clinton's base includes African-American voters, many of whom are religious, and she was excellent in aiming her persuasion toward that demographic. It began with a subtle, but noticeable, first answer when she said "Amen to that," as she indicated her agreement with a Sanders answer. Later, when asked whom she prays for, Clinton had a long answer, laying out much of her belief structure.
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    Finally, she mentioned her work in both South Carolina and in Alabama to fight oppression in academics and the criminal justice system. She even handled Don Lemon's "So tell me how you are a racist," question (I rephrased it from his query about racial "blind spots" but I promise you that's what he asked!) pretty well, as did Sanders. (Lemon, surprisingly, asked them both to explain their racist tendencies).
    Steal: Two issues seem at the heart of Sanders' support from millennials. First is global warming, and I didn't think Clinton made any progress there. It was especially noticeable on the question of whether she supported fracking, when her long, complicated answer was diffused by Sanders when he said his answer was much more simple, "No, I do not support fracking."
    The idea of bailouts as a negative concept is also at the heart of the Sanders campaign. Clinton had a new approach on this and it was quite successful in this debate. She decided to take a specific example of the automobile industry, and played it against Sanders. She voted to bail them out, she said, and argued that we'd be short another four million jobs if everyone voted like Sanders: against the bailout.
    Indeed, she took one of Sanders best arguments from previous debates and turned it on him in this one. It might not steal a lot of votes, but I thought it was a terrific approach, particularly in Michigan, the longtime locus of the American auto industry. Also, equally as important, Clinton didn't offend any of the Sanders base in this debate and this is crucial in case she wins the Democratic nomination, since she'll need ever vote she can get.

    Sanders: B

    Seal: He was stronger than Clinton on climate change with his fracking answer and his general tone. Sanders was excellent, as always, criticizing free trade agreements and Wall Street influence. His base won't doubt their decision based on any of his answers in the debate.
    Sanders, Clinton spar over Wall Street ties
    Sanders, Clinton spar over Wall Street ties

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    Sanders, Clinton spar over Wall Street ties 02:10
    Steal: Sanders was solid on African American issues. He should play up his history more often. I liked that he mentioned his arrest by Chicago police when working to desegregate housing at the University of Chicago. Add to that his marching on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr., and there's a chance that Sanders might win over some of Clinton's chief demographic. Did he steal many? Probably not. But he certainly didn't lose any African American voters, in case he wins the Democratic nomination. Again, that's crucial to a general election victory.
    Sanders needs to be careful in two areas: sarcasm and occasional tone. His "isn't it tragic..." spiel needs to go, since sarcasm is often not welcome by a general audience. The one exception? I appreciated Sanders' response when Clinton said she'd release her transcripts of Wall Street speeches when everyone else did. Sanders, who's never given a speech to Wall Street, began by waving his arms wildly, as if shooing pigeons in the park, and yelled, "I release it." This even got a chuckle out of Clinton.
    The other area Sanders needs to be careful: His tone with Clinton when he thinks she interrupts him is a bit harsh, even if he's correct. The audience could be heard gasping when he barked at her.
    Fixing this shouldn't be a problem.