Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Debate coach: Why Obama was stellar this time

By Todd Graham, Special to CNN
October 17, 2012 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands following the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on Tuesday, October 16, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/03/politics/gallery/first-presidential-debate/index.html'>See the best photos of the first presidential debate.</a> Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands following the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on Tuesday, October 16, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. See the best photos of the first presidential debate.
HIDE CAPTION
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
14 debate 1016
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
The second presidential debate
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Todd Graham: Obama revived himself and gave a stellar (but not perfect) debate performance
  • He says Obama used "primacy effect" technique to be most persuasive first thing in debate
  • He says Obama also used Romney's own words against him, a timeless, winning strategy
  • Graham: Romney used that technique too, but late in debate; lost valuable time in waiting

Editor's note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith national debate coach of the year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.

(CNN) -- President Obama's Ambien finally wore off, and thus he began the second presidential debate with Mitt Romney.

Obama's performance Tuesday night was stellar (but not perfect) because of two techniques that I push to my debate teams ad nauseam. The first is the primacy effect, and the second is using your opponent's language against him. If you want to win a debate, you've got to master these techniques.

Todd Graham
Todd Graham

The primacy effect is the idea that the first things a speaker says are more persuasive than those that follow. It holds true in conversations, in 90-minute debates, and even over a series of speeches or debates.

Obama came out strong. He lacked passion in the previous debate, but when answering the first question from the audience Tuesday night, Obama brought the heat. Early on he said Romney didn't have a five-point economic plan, but "a one-point plan" -- that "folks at the top play by a different set of rules." Right away we knew this was a different Obama.

Yeah, I know, everyone's probably talking about that comment because it's a good sound bite. But for me, it's the primacy effect taking off. I teach my debaters that you've got to make your best arguments early in the speech. Otherwise you might not have the judge's full attention when you get to your best arguments, thereby lessening the weight of your position.

Opinion roundup: Obama bounces back, dominates debate

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I guarantee you this one answer -- the "one-point plan" -- will be talked about more than any other (aside from that silly "binders full of women" distraction), partially because the president was memorable here, but mostly because of the primacy effect.

The second debating concept I preach is the importance of language choices. If a team I coached ever concluded a debate without using their opponents' language against them, I'd want to make them run laps. (OK, that's a terrible idea -- picture in your mind a debate team running laps. )

Obama used Romney's language against him time and time again, and it was effective. Here are some examples of Obama quoting Romney.

Obama vs. Romney: The second debate
Crowley: I wanted to 'move this along'
Blackburn: 'Romney won the debate'
Fact check: Pell Grant claims

"This plant kills" (from a Romney quote illustrating his flip-flop on coal plants); Romney's assertion that promoting a lower tax rate for the most wealthy Americans "grows the economy;" "I'll get back to you on that," his spokesman's initial response on Romney's stance on the Lilly Ledbetter bill, which makes it easier for women who have been discriminated against over equal pay to sue employers.

Debaters can't easily get out of arguments when you quote their own words. It's a timeless, winning strategy.

Opinion: How Obama aced comeback

Moving further forward in the debate, Romney used the same technique responding to the sixth question, when asked what the president had done or accomplished to earn our vote. Unemployment, Medicare, Social Security and immigration were all subtopics that Romney used when answering this particular question. And he began each of these issues with the phrase "He said..." when referring to Obama. He followed this by reminding the audience of Obama's perceived shortcomings on these issues. It was Romney's best moment of the debate. Unfortunately, it came almost an hour into it.

In fact, it took Romney almost an hour until he had a clearly favorable exchange. That's too long. Because of the primacy effect, undecided voters won't likely remember the stuff in the middle of the debate as much as the points at the beginning.

It's good for Romney that this wasn't the first debate, because Obama's performance was much stronger Tuesday night. The primacy effect over these two debates might have just saved Romney. I expect the president to get a bump in the polls from this debate, but it could have been worse for Romney. Think about it: If we simply reversed the order of the debates, the race for president would look very different right now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT