Presidential Debate Primer

Big Red debate director provides tips on watching candidates spar
Tuesday, September 20, 2016

ILR Senior Lecturer Sam Nelson, director of the Cornell Speech and Debate Society, predicts the presidential debates kicking off Sept. 26 will be viewed by record numbers of people.

“We have such interesting candidates. They’re diametrically opposed in many ways. There’s a lot of attention drawn to them because they’re such strong personalities.”  

Debates showcase personality, he explained during an ILR Online webcast outlining how viewers can watch the argumentation with a debate coach frame of reference.  

“If you come across as mean and nasty, people that don’t already know about you will think that’s how you act all the time. So, you need to be charming.”

“The likeability factor – or the “dislikeability” factor, this year – will have a huge influence on the mindsets of the voters.”

That isn’t to say policy positions don’t matter, Nelson said. “The worst thing that can happen in a debate is a gaffe – the thing you say that no one can agree is good.”

“That can show a big hole in your potential ability to be president, because there’s a hole in your debate preparation or a hole in your knowledge.”

Nelson explained that presidential campaign teams often engage in “performance spin-down” before a debate in order to play down audience and pundit expectations.

“This happened between John Kerry and George Bush. Kerry was a top debater at Princeton, and Bush was on the baseball team, so the Bush team really emphasized Kerry’s debating skills.”

“After the debate, everyone was surprised that Bush even managed to stand in there with Kerry. By spinning down expectations, you really set the stage afterwards for pundits to defend you.”

Even something as seemingly trivial as how presidential candidates refer to each other might make a difference in how rivals fare with the electorate, Nelson said.

Clinton should refer to Trump as “Mr. Trump,” as it allows her to subtly emphasize that Trump has never held an elected office, Nelson said.

On the other hand, Trump should ask Clinton how she wants to be addressed, as “many perceive [him] as being very rude, and this would help him combat the perception of rudeness.”

Debate viewers should ask themselves if candidates are running away from questions, instead of answering them, he said.

"If candidates are asked a specific question and then try to rephrase the question so they can avoid answering that original question, viewers should count that as a question unanswered," Nelson said.

Viewers should also take note of the candidates’ consistency with logic, Nelson said. Do candidates’ arguments contradict themselves? Do their arguments make sense?

Nelson and the Cornell Speech and Debate Society plan to host presidential debate watching events for the Cornell community during the three scheduled presidential debates.

"It should be a great learning opportunity and a lot of fun for everyone involved.”