September 27, 2016

Husker debate coach: Clinton scores higher in 'personality contest'

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump probably wouldn’t make the University of Nebraska-Lincoln debate team, judging by their respective performances during Sept. 26’s first presidential debate.

Aaron Duncan, director of the Speech and Debate Program and an assistant professor of practice in communication studies at Nebraska, put the highly watched event into context. Duncan is currently researching how the American Dream is expressed in current political communication.

Q: If Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were your students, how would you grade them on their performance?

A: The format doesn’t really allow for true debate. It did not allow time for them to present facts and evidence in support of their arguments. From that level, I wouldn’t give either of them a good grade. Nonverbally, Clinton was better at smiling or keeping a blank expression when Trump was talking. I don’t think either of them got an A, but Hillary got a better grade.

Q: Given that they’re really not about winning policy arguments, what purpose do presidential debates serve?

A: They are a contest of sound bites. They’re beauty pageants. That’s why you see reports from past debates that mention Barack Obama talking with his head down, or Al Gore sighing, or George H.W. Bush checking his watch. They don’t really give much to people who haven’t studied the election and are looking at the debates as a way to decide between candidates.

Q: What points did Trump score?

A: He scored well on the economy and trade early in the debate. That was the only part of the debate where he had specifics. He had a clearer, more consistent stance on trade. He tapped into that strong sentiment of dissatisfaction with government. He feeds into something that’s palpable to capitalize on that outsider image.

Q: What points did Clinton score?

A: She was a little bit more composed, she did a good job of keeping her cool. She started doing better as the debate went on and the questions started favoring her areas of strength, like the questions about Trump’s support of the “birther” movement and Trump’s refusal to release his income tax returns. When Clinton said Trump may not have paid income taxes, he interjected “that would make me smart.” She turned that on him, by saying “that means less money for our troops.”

Q: What did the debate reveal about Trump’s strategy?

A: For Trump to gain votes, he has to win them from the coalition that supported President Obama, or Clinton must fail to motivate them to come out for her. That’s why race issues and women’s issues represent key demographics for her.

Trump is not going to win with them – his polling with African-Americans is pretty abysmal and he’s not polling well with women, either. But he can’t rely just on white males, which is his only demographic of strength. Mitt Romney relied on that demographic in 2012 and still lost by a considerable electoral margin. That’s why he made sure to mention her 1996 comments describing some young black men as “superpredators.” That was part of his effort to reach out to African Americans and to appeal to minority voters.

Q: What was Clinton’s strategy?

A: She needed to hold his feet to the fire and she had to agitate him, to show he doesn’t have the temperament to be president. She wanted him to lose his cool and be aggressive. She had to have a 90-minute view of it and hope by the end he unravels – like a football game. He started out strong, but by the end he wanes and gets frustrated. He can’t keep it together if you keep pushing on him.

Q: What’s your takeaway?

A: This year’s election is a personality contest. You either like Trump’s personality or you hate it. You hate Hillary Clinton’s personality or you’re OK with it. This debate was not adding to anybody’s understanding of the issues.

Trump and Clinton are to square off again in a town hall-style event Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis.