Debate coach: Why Obama was stellar this time

Published 11:11 AM EDT, Wed October 17, 2012

Story highlights

Todd Graham: Obama revived himself and gave a stellar (but not perfect) debate performance

He says Obama used "primacy effect" technique to be most persuasive first thing in debate

He says Obama also used Romney's own words against him, a timeless, winning strategy

Graham: Romney used that technique too, but late in debate; lost valuable time in waiting

Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith national debate coach of the year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.

(CNN) —  

President Obama’s Ambien finally wore off, and thus he began the second presidential debate with Mitt Romney.

Obama’s performance Tuesday night was stellar (but not perfect) because of two techniques that I push to my debate teams ad nauseam. The first is the primacy effect, and the second is using your opponent’s language against him. If you want to win a debate, you’ve got to master these techniques.

Todd Graham
PHOTO: Courtesy Todd Graham
Todd Graham

The primacy effect is the idea that the first things a speaker says are more persuasive than those that follow. It holds true in conversations, in 90-minute debates, and even over a series of speeches or debates.

Obama came out strong. He lacked passion in the previous debate, but when answering the first question from the audience Tuesday night, Obama brought the heat. Early on he said Romney didn’t have a five-point economic plan, but “a one-point plan” – that “folks at the top play by a different set of rules.” Right away we knew this was a different Obama.

Yeah, I know, everyone’s probably talking about that comment because it’s a good sound bite. But for me, it’s the primacy effect taking off. I teach my debaters that you’ve got to make your best arguments early in the speech. Otherwise you might not have the judge’s full attention when you get to your best arguments, thereby lessening the weight of your position.

Opinion roundup: Obama bounces back, dominates debate

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I guarantee you this one answer – the “one-point plan” – will be talked about more than any other (aside from that silly “binders full of women” distraction), partially because the president was memorable here, but mostly because of the primacy effect.

The second debating concept I preach is the importance of language choices. If a team I coached ever concluded a debate without using their opponents’ language against them, I’d want to make them run laps. (OK, that’s a terrible idea – picture in your mind a debate team running laps. )

Obama used Romney’s language against him time and time again, and it was effective. Here are some examples of Obama quoting Romney.

“This plant kills” (from a Romney quote illustrating his flip-flop on coal plants); Romney’s assertion that promoting a lower tax rate for the most wealthy Americans “grows the economy;” “I’ll get back to you on that,” his spokesman’s initial response on Romney’s stance on the Lilly Ledbetter bill, which makes it easier for women who have been discriminated against over equal pay to sue employers.

Debaters can’t easily get out of arguments when you quote their own words. It’s a timeless, winning strategy.

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Moving further forward in the debate, Romney used the same technique responding to the sixth question, when asked what the president had done or accomplished to earn our vote. Unemployment, Medicare, Social Security and immigration were all subtopics that Romney used when answering this particular question. And he began each of these issues with the phrase “He said…” when referring to Obama. He followed this by reminding the audience of Obama’s perceived shortcomings on these issues. It was Romney’s best moment of the debate. Unfortunately, it came almost an hour into it.

In fact, it took Romney almost an hour until he had a clearly favorable exchange. That’s too long. Because of the primacy effect, undecided voters won’t likely remember the stuff in the middle of the debate as much as the points at the beginning.

It’s good for Romney that this wasn’t the first debate, because Obama’s performance was much stronger Tuesday night. The primacy effect over these two debates might have just saved Romney. I expect the president to get a bump in the polls from this debate, but it could have been worse for Romney. Think about it: If we simply reversed the order of the debates, the race for president would look very different right now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.