Debate coach: Trump's strategy mistakes too serious to overcome

Clinton Trump debate one liners origwx cs_00012310
Clinton Trump debate one liners origwx cs_00012310


    Clinton & Trump drop one-liners at the final debate


Clinton & Trump drop one-liners at the final debate 01:36

Story highlights

  • Todd Graham rates Clinton and Trump on how well they executed their debate strategies, and whether they worked
  • He says overall, Clinton did well, but Trump's strategy played to his base, which won't help him win the election

Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won five national championships and advanced to the "final-four" of a national championship tournament nine consecutive years. He's been recognized three times as the national debate coach of the year. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.


Well, it was good for a while. The first 30 minutes showed promise. But it couldn't last ... at least for one of the presidential candidates. Today I'll base my grading of the presidential debate on strategy. Collegiate teams, in fact, win and lose debates mostly on strategy. The right strategy is essential for a debate victory, and each of the candidates came into the debate Wednesday night with a clear one. Did they pull it off?
Todd Graham
Let's start with Hillary Clinton. Her strategy was threefold. Contrast her ideas with Donald Trump's, be presidential, and try to bait him into losing his composure (aka: let Trump be Trump).
    Contrast her ideas with Trump:
    This is a terrific debating tactic. I often suggest to my debaters that they take plenty of time in their speeches to go beyond highlighting our arguments and use our speech time to differentiate our positions from our opponents. Clinton did this with taxes and other issues when she talked about "my plan" and then "Donald's plan," and "let me translate that, if I can ..." My only complaint is that she should have used this tactic even more.
    Strategy: A
    Success: B
    Be presidential:
    This one's easy. She was steady again.
    Strategy: A
    Success: A
    Look, a piece of cheese:
    Clinton continued to bait Trump until he finally couldn't resist the cheese. I also give her kudos for patience: for the first 30 minutes, it looked like Trump might indeed not take the cheese. But Clinton stuck with her strategy, and by the end of the debate, after throwing out lines on Trump as a puppet of Putin, as a paranoid conspiracy theorist thinking the Emmy's were rigged, on his statement that he opposed the Iraq war, and on taxes, she found his soft spot.
    Strategy: A
    Success: A-
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    Donald Trump also had three clear strategies, which were to avoid specifics on future policy, shore up the base, and truth be damned.
    Avoid specific policy proposals
    This was most evident at the end of the debate, when he was asked questions about future plans in Mosul and what to do in Syria or about Aleppo. Trump pivoted to talking about how we got into this mess rather than how he's going to get us out of the mess. And after all of Trump's criticism of NAFTA, the best he could muster in the debate was the generic idea that he'd somehow negotiate a "better" deal. I generally don't like this debate strategy of avoiding telling us your plans for the future; Trump simply hasn't shown that he has any specific proposals in many areas, especially foreign policy. So the best strategy for him (but not those of us who want to know) is to avoid talking about specific future policy.
    Strategy: C
    Success: A
    Shore up the base
    "Such a nasty woman." That response from Trump -- an interruption of Clinton near the end of the debate -- pretty much sums up his approach. Add to that the carping on the "rigged" election, and his assertion and that he won't necessarily accept the results of the election ("I will tell you at the time" and "I'll keep you in suspense"), and you have a candidate preaching to his choir. Trump's strategy was successful in that regard, but it's not a winning strategy for independent or undecided voters. Indeed, it's a ridiculous debating strategy. One of the first rules on our debate team is that when we have a panel of judges, we should try to debate for the judges we aren't sure about, since the ones who favor our arguments are probably going to vote for us anyway.
    Strategy: F
    Success: A
    Truth is overrated
    By now, he's been fact-checked so many times that he's simply got to know he's lying. He appears to lie uncontrollably. And yet he clearly doesn't care, since he continues to do it. In this debate, he even came up with some new whoppers -- for example that Clinton is behind the sexual assault allegations Trump has faced (there's no proof of that); that his accusers' stories about his sexual assaults are "largely debunked" (not true); that there are millions of registered voters who shouldn't be (false); that Clinton's State Department was either "missing" or had "stolen" $6 billion dollars (false). I could go on, but would run out of space here.
    Debates are based on the idea that we are searching for the truth. I'll say it again: You can't win a debate by lying. You won't ever get a passing grade for outright lying.
    Strategy: F
    Success: A+
    My main point: Trump had terrible strategy. Winning over people who are already voting for you doesn't win elections, avoiding future policy doesn't help voters decide, and overt lying is, well, it's just the worst.
    In fact, as Trump might put it, he had the worst strategy in the history of debates. His strategy was the biggest, the hugest disaster of all time.
    We jest, but the fact remains: even with his solid first 30 minutes, Trump's mistakes in strategy are too serious to overcome. These are mistakes that prevent debaters from ever winning. Heck, they prevent anyone from passing my debate class.
    Overall grades
    Clinton: A-
    Trump: F