It is time to drop the subjective standards we use to rate our Presidential debates.
It is time to provide a clear and understandable method to judge who most effectively argued his or her case to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world.
As we come to the end of the most vicious Presidential debate series in the most disgusting Presidential election season in our collective memory, the discussion is who won each debate. The truth is: We have no objective standard to judge the winners. Yet, third grade teachers and debate coaches solved that problem long ago. I’ll get to that in a minute.
After the first debate, the most watched in history, all the denizens of Twitter with handles including the word Deplorable immediately declared Donald Trump the victor. For the following week, Mr. Trump himself cited the host of non-scientific online polls declaring him the unmistakable winner.
Even his most faithful have to admit that after the first thirty minutes of that debate, he appeared to be a tired, confused old man. Later, it was reported that many of the online polls were manipulated by individuals and bots organized by internet trolls on sites such as 4Chan and Reddit to inflate his numbers artificially. Scientific pollsters declared Hillary Clinton the obvious winner.
This situation left his followers confused and angry.
After the Vice-Presidential Debate, which I must admit I could only watch for about fifteen minutes, the winner seemed to have been Republican Mike Pence even though he could not remember any of the most distasteful comments his running mate had uttered. He must have been the winner because the Republican Party posted the results BEFORE the debate occurred.
Tim Kaine came across as the angry uncle we want to keep at the other end of the dinner table at Thanksgiving—even though some pundits argued that he won the debate for honesty and substance.
Now comes the third in the series. The first scientific polls are CNN/ORC, which indicated a 57-34 lead for Secretary Clinton and the YouGov poll that gave her a 47-42 lead.
Political opinion writers are mixed in their results. The outcomes seem dependent on the author’s pre-existing point of view. The Atlantic posted an article called Donald Trump’s Disastrous Debate. Will Rahn at CBS declared, “Trump won, narrowly. But I suspect it won’t matter all that much.”
The Los Angeles Times produced a very informative piece in which three political writers and columnists compared each candidate in three rounds to determine a winner based on content. Each of the three rated Clinton the winner. Neither chose Trump as the winner in either of the three rounds.
Judging candidate performance is very haphazard. Some people base responses on style; others look at preparation. Some base assessments on canned zingers or candidate views on specific topics relevant to their own needs.
For many, the only consideration is how a candidate makes them feel or if they live up to a nebulous benchmark for looking Presidential. Ultimately, these two criteria probably determine how a person will vote, but it is time to look at Presidential debates more objectively…as teachers and debate judges do every day.
It is time to begin singing from the same songbook.
Nicole Wallace, former Republican political strategist and MSNBC commentator, made an important point in the discussion after the third debate. She said that if Mike Pence won the Vice-Presidential debate on his style, the same standard must be applied to Hillary Clinton’s performance. This comes as Media Matters compiled a long list of pundits who suggested that the media hold Clinton to a higher standard of performance than they hold for Trump.
This leads me to a more objective approach to debates.
Educators from kindergarten to college use tools called rubrics to assess student performance. You can see a list of sample rubrics at this University of Wisconsin site. This link shows a rubric assessing student presentations for middle school students. Here is a rubric for using scientific tools, strategies, data and concepts.
The Middle School Debate Assessment Rubric found in this document is a beginning for how to judge Presidential debate performance more objectively.
Effective debaters focus on logical arguments that include assertions, reasoning, evidence and organized thoughts. They must be able to refute opponents’ arguments with logical and consistent positions. Certainly, body language, humor and voice inflection are important, but they must be considered only as part of the whole. In addition, Presidential debates must be scored using policy specifics.
Unfortunately, in our current Presidential debates, we have to add another dynamic—that of truthfulness. Previously, I mentioned Mike Pence’s foggy memory about his running mate’s comments. After Presidential debate number two, New York Times opinion writer David Leonhardt listed the inaccurate comments Mr. Trump uttered during that debate. For the first time in their history, the Times has begun to use the term lie to describe these inaccuracies.
Even with improved standards for judging, each person will weigh performance in different ways, but it is time to recognize debate performances as very complex events. Performance has to become more than how a candidate makes me feel. Performance must be judged on substance as well as style, logic as well as presentation.
When we discuss who won or lost a debate, it is not enough to rely simply on emotion. We must look at the entire range of performance.
The result is far too important to leave to chance.