Major news outlets want to know: who won the first presidential debate of 2016? Could it be Trump, who interrupted Clinton 51 times? Could it be Clinton, who stared into the camera (while Trump continued to deny his public statements on global warming) more often than Jim on “The Office?” Or maybe it was Lester Holt, who moderated the debate in front of an estimated 84 million viewers.
Fellow citizens, I’d argue that the real winners are the news networks who aired the debate. The voters that got to study the candidates’ personalities, if not their policies. My friends, who got to hear my running commentary throughout the debate. Not Clinton or Trump, not their accusations and interruptions, not their struggle to win more votes.
The concept of winning is a vague one, though. To win, candidates need a strategy and a way to determine the winner. Myles Martel, former media advisor to Ronald Reagan, said that there are two kinds of media strategies: substance and relational strategies. The first focuses on policy and the job the candidate is trying to win. The latter relies on people’s reactions.
Relational strategies involve attacks on an opponent, asserting that one candidate has done something better than their opponent and ignoring points or claims a candidate cannot successfully respond to. Substance strategies, in contrast, don’t rivet voters.
People won’t talk about Clinton’s and Trump’s stances on taxes until candidates start making up their own facts and hurling insults. Sensationalism makes politics interesting. Relational debate strategies spice up tax policies.
The rhetoric surrounding the presidential debates puts the candidates’ shouting on display as if the ruckus is something other than sound bites and the smallest of peeks into who each candidate really is and what they would bring to our country. When people watch the geriatric version of the heavyweight boxing championships, it’s unsurprising that we want to talk about debates as a sport, with rankings and stats and teams.
For anyone to truly win a debate, policy or leadership styles would have to be addressed and concerns thoughtfully analyzed, because a “win” in politics is a responsive government that can serve at the pleasure of the American public. A “win” at any level of public office is a time when public needs are met, and people try their best to make policy that reflects what’s best for the people.
So a “win,” by necessity, requires listening to other people. It requires acknowledging the differences between opponents, compromise and a sincere will to change a strategy if that strategy fails to help people. The strategy that best achieves these ends is the substance strategy. When candidates try to be good public servants, they practice debating with substance. Voters can create an informed opinion. The entire political establishment wins with a knowledgeable electorate and candidates that work to uphold their constituents’ expectations.
Does it matter which candidate is said to have won? Not if the media continues evaluating debaters as though they were boxers in a ring. Few people watch a presidential debate with no knowledge of who the candidates are. We know that Trump is loud and demeaning, and that Clinton has been involved in a few scandals during her long tenure in public office. We want to know why they think they are fit to lead this country. We need to know what substance they will bring to office — how they can make our lives better and how they plan to improve the United States’ reputation at home and abroad. The media continues to focus on “winning,” however, in terms of who shouted the loudest or who viewers liked more at the moment.
When you search “Who won the 2016 presidential debate,” every major news website, and a great many less relevant news sites, show articles declaring one candidate or another the winner based on shock value. News networks smattered their television and print coverage with assertions of Clinton or Trump’s victory. Instead, the media should focus on what there is to learn about the candidates. Voters should reflect on what they believe Trump and Clinton will do once in office. And we should all reject the binary concept of “winning” or “losing” a debate. In the end, politics are about improving life for the citizens officials serve. Debates should focus on what we can learn, and define the success of the candidates through the quality of the discussion. There are no winners in the current style of analysis for presidential debates.