Quartz asked two championship debaters, including the top-ranked teen in the Karl Popper Debating Championship, to watch and evaluate the first US presidential debates.
Analyzing this debate, there are three things we as debaters wanted to focus on: style, strategy, and content. However, we see that strategy was not a prominent feature of the discourse between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama as they had limited time-periods for different issues, although we did see Obama frequently requesting more time. Hence, we’re focusing here on style and content.
First, let’s take a look at the content emerging from both candidates. Mitt Romney appeared as the man with much stronger content and clarity of thought. There seemed to be a logical flow to his arguments whereby first he would set out a premise/make a claim, he would then provide evidence to substantiate that claim and finally analyze the statement and link it back to the topic being debated. He followed this, for example, in the case of Obamacare, and his claim that it is too expensive. He then cited evidence from various studies indicating an increase in spending on health insurance by average American households. Analysis was then provided on its implications such as leaving the middle class worse off, increasing the debt, and the negative impact on Medicaid, and finally linked back to the topic of debate—healthcare. A similar method was used to highlight excessive regulation in the financial sector by quoting directly from the Dodd-Frank Act. Romney was equally as impressive in deconstructing Obama’s arguments, such as whether raising taxes on the rich would actually be beneficial or not. He first highlighted the common need to stimulate the economy and decrease the debt. Then he proved how raising taxes would not achieve either of the two aims. Finally, he put forward his own solution of tackling the debt. This is an excellent example of how, in order to refute an argument, one must not simply put forward a counter argument but also first identify the faulty premise in his opponent’s arguments.
Obama was mainly focused on employing rhetoric and hence did not have much genuine argumentative content coming through. One thing Obama did do well though was defend ObamaCare through analogies. He derived the logic behind acceptable services such as Social Security and Medicaid, which was to support the poor and the needy, and then extended the basis of that logic to ObamaCare by providing evidence of the law helping those in need. By making this seem a natural extension of acceptable programs implemented today, Obama managed to downplay the controversy attached to universal healthcare.
In the matter of style however, Obama seems to have achieved success over Romney. Despite lacking confidence at certain occasions, he seemed the more composed of the two by looking directly into the cameras and portraying himself as the president with all his infinite wisdom and state experience. Furthermore, while the frequent rhetoric about primary education, nursing homes, college students, and children with disabilities may not have been argumentatively strong, it certainly played to his strengths of being considered a likeable character, especially taking into account the strong co-relation between voters casting their vote for individuals who they seem to ‘like’ more. Romney, by contrast, tried to be more pro-active in his approach, in an effort to shed the “out-of-touch” label associated with him. His hand movements and constant focus at Obama indicated his focus was on the president and not the people.
Overall however, in just like any other debate, content invariably triumphs over style and that was exactly the case last night, with the debate arguably going in Mitt Romney’s favor.
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