The First Presidential Debate: Rhetorical Victory Goes to Clinton

The First Presidential Debate: Rhetorical Victory Goes to Clinton

The first debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump drew a record audience, making it one of the most-watched presidential debates in history.  Some watched to cheer on a candidate, or to make up their minds about whom to support.  We watched for the rhetoric.  The purpose of our blog is not to take political positions; instead, we are taking positions about who speaks effectively.  By that metric, Hillary Clinton emerged as the clear victor of the first presidential debate.


Classical rhetoric teaches that a speaker persuades by projecting credibility and character.

Both Clinton and Trump struggle with ethos challenges.  Clinton has acknowledged polls indicating that some voters do not “like” her or trust her with classified information.  Trump has a record of repeatedly misrepresenting facts or outright lying — as of the date of the debate, The Washington Post rated about 65 percent of his statements to be “Four Pinocchios” (their worst rating for lies), and PolitiFact has scored only 16% of his statements as “true” or “mostly true.”

Clinton’s obvious command of facts during the debate made her credible as a potential commander-in-chief.  She was most convincing when she was answering questions or engaging in an extemporaneous dialogue.  Her weakest ethos moments were when she offered answers that were clearly memorized (including her first moments during the debate, when she had not yet hit her stride).  When a speaker sounds as if she is reciting a script, the audience may believe that she either does not believe what she’s saying or does not know the information well enough to be able to relax and explain it to them.  Clinton didn’t do this often during the debate, but when she did, it worked against her.

Once the debate was properly underway, though, Clinton appeared to be in her element.  She seems to take genuine pleasure in thinking on her feet, and her impressive ability to synthesize information and explain it succinctly (which has not always been easy for her in the past) was on display throughout the event.

Trump, on the other hand, projected very little ethos.  He struggled with truthfulness throughout the debate, sticking stubbornly to falsehoods that are simple to disprove, such as his claim that “Thousands of jobs [are] leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio, they’re all leaving” (both states have gained jobs in recent years); his claim that New York’s stop-and-frisk policy was not ruled unconstitutional (it was); his claim that Clinton started the birther movement (he did); his attempt to back away from previous statements that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China; his claim that Clinton has been fighting ISIS “her entire adult life” (impossible, as ISIS has existed in its present form only since 2013).  Insisting on easily disprovable positions erodes a speaker’s credibility and calls his judgment into question.  Trump did well with hitting the broad themes of his campaign (immigrants and criminals are roaming the streets; America isn’t safe; I am a businessman who can make America rich), but had trouble answering specific questions about his plans and keeping his cool when challenged on factual inaccuracies.


A speaker will be more persuasive if he can connect with an audience on an emotional level.  If the emotion a leader triggers is anger or fear, then he shifts into the world of demagoguery, which violates the precepts of ethical rhetoric.

Clinton did an admirable job of keeping her cool throughout the debate.  Trump interrupted her repeatedly, but she simply ignored the behavior.  As a result, she remained composed and ultimately controlled the rhythms of the conversation.

Trump’s repeated interruptions backfired.  Rather than rattling Clinton, they made him appear unable to control himself, as did his self-soothing behavior of drinking water in between answers.  His lack of self-control led the audience to laugh audibly when he claimed, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.”

One of the most interesting emotion-driven moments of the debate occurred when Clinton denounced Trump’s misogynistic statements about women:

“This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men.” Describing a beauty contestant: “He called this woman Miss Piggy. Then he called her Miss Housekeeping, because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.”

The attack unnerved Trump, who then launched into an odd monologue in which he appeared to be having an internal debate with himself (albeit out loud, on stage) about whether to raise the specter of the Clintons’ personal lives.

“You know Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials, some of it’s entertainment, some of it is said [sic] somebody’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said tough things to her and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her but you want to know the truth, I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate, it’s not nice. But she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many which are absolutely untrue. They’re untrue and they’re misrepresentations. And I will tell you this, Lester, it’s not nice and I don’t — I don’t deserve that. But it’s certainly not a nice thing that she’s done.”

You can watch this answer here.


To be persuasive, a speaker’s logic must be clear.  You can achieve this by using short, succinct, clear sentences and a straightforward structure.

Here are two moments worth watching.  First is Hillary Clinton’s masterful argument that Trump should release his taxes.  Notice that the structure is very clear — she lists four reasons why he might be hiding the returns, numbering each reason to emphasize it.  Her sentences are short, which makes them easier to understand.  And she gets into a rhythm that makes the moment memorable.  (You can also see Trump fidgeting and drinking water as she answers.)

“So you gotta ask yourself — why won’t he release his tax returns? And I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he is not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million dollars to Wall Street and foreign banks. Or maybe he does not want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he has paid nothing in federal taxes because the only years that anybody has ever seen for a couple of years where he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license. And they showed he did not pay any federal income tax.  If you have paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for vets, zero for schools or health. And I think probably he is not all that enthusiastic about having the rest of our country see what the real reasons are because it must be something really important, even terrible, that he is trying to hide. In the financial disclosure statements they don’t give your tax rate. They don’t give you all the details the tax returns would. And it just seems to me that this is something that the American people deserve to see. And I have no reason to believe that he is ever going to release his tax returns because there is something he is hiding. And we will guess — we’ll keep guessing at what it might be that he is hiding. But I think the question is were he ever to get near the White House, what would be those conflicts? Who does he owe money to? Well, he owes you the answers to that. And he should provide them.”

The second moment worth watching came when Trump tried to explain the Iran deal.  He has a potentially persuasive argument he could make here — that America gave money in exchange for hostages. But the point was lost because his sentences are disjointed, overly long, filled with imprecise pronouns, and grammatically incorrect.

“And by the way, another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal. Iran is one of their biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea. And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea.  And they should’ve done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places and when I asked to Secretary Kerry, why didn’t you do that, why didn’t you add other things into the deal? One of the great giveaways of all time, of all time, including $400 million dollars in cash nobody’s ever seen that before that turned out to be wrong. It was actually $1.7 billion dollars in cash, obviously I guess for the hostages. It certainly looks that way. So you say to yourself why didn’t they make the right deal? This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems. All they have to do is sit back 10 years and they don’t have to do much. And they’re going to end up getting nuclear. I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day; believe me, he is not a happy camper.”

In contrast, compare Hillary Clinton’s response:

“Let me start by saying words matter; words matter when you run for president and they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them. It is essential that America’s word be good.”

You can watch that exchange here.

In terms of ethos, pathos, and logos, Hillary Clinton dominated the first debate.  It will be interesting to see what the second debate brings.

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