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Elements of argument and the first Presidential debate

posted: 10.12.12 by Donna Winchell

Much of the early spin on the first 2012 presidential debate focused on delivery style. The oversimplified version was that Romney was aggressive and looked Obama in the eye, while Obama seemed preoccupied and looked primarily at his podium.

What does our knowledge of the elements of argument contribute to our understanding of the candidates’ strategies? A debate does not have a single thesis or claim, but audience members both in Denver and at home could tell that each candidate had key points he wanted to make (and was going to make) whether they were in response to a question from the moderator or not. That’s not unusual in presidential debates, and it’s why debaters train and practice.

The types of evidence the candidates offered to support their claims were not that different from those used in student writing. Each candidate used specific examples to personalize his general statements. Obama referred to the economic plight of his grandparents. Both men referred to “typical” Americans they had met in their travels. Both used statistical support and a lot of numbers, but the examples made the hardships and successes more real and more human.

Statistics, however, can be analyzed in a number of ways (which our students are learning). And expert opinion has value insofar as the experts are truly experts and their conclusions valid. We tell our students that when they do research, they cannot ignore evidence that works against their claim because those with opposing views may know that that evidence exists. In the debate, each candidate referred to studies supporting his claims only to have his opponent refer to several other studies that would disprove it. Audience members are left wondering which studies—and which candidate—to believe.

Each audience member must fill in the gap between claim and support according to his or her needs and values, which is why those who watched the debate believing that their minds were made up probably didn’t change their opinion. They probably found that if they shared the value system that could provide warrants similar to those Obama was basing his arguments on, their support for Obama was reinforced—and the same for Romney supporters. It may also be why all the audience was left to focus on was the delivery—the stage presence and body language each candidate displayed. The rules will change with the next debate, however, because it will be in town hall format, providing a different rhetorical situation.

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