As We See It

A high school debate coach’s advice for the candidates

Green Valley High’s Scott Ginger stresses style, substance and accuracy

Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh

“Inept.” “Lackluster.” “Defensive.” These words have been used to describe President Obama’s performance against Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate on Oct. 3. The general consensus: Romney won—and maybe Obama needs a nap. Or maybe he needs a new coach.

Scott Ginger is the coach of Green Valley High School’s debate team, which won its 12th state championship in 2011. When he watches a debate he notices more than who’s taking the lead. “We break it down and talk about who crosses the center line first, and if they shake hands, and if one puts their hand on the other’s shoulder.” They seem like insignificant details, but these things matter. “About one quarter of voters vote on policy,” Ginger says, “and the rest vote on something else.” Charisma. Style. That elusive “likability.”

Still, Ginger’s main critique of the Denver debate is straight off a high school test: The candidates didn’t answer the questions. “If you took the question and typed up some of their answers, many times they would have either a D or an F.”

Going into their next meeting on October 16, Ginger says Romney needs to be prepared for a more assertive Obama. “Don’t remain scripted. Don’t be too aggressive.” Obama, meanwhile, should set the tone earlier. “You don’t usually lose 14 rounds and then get a knockout in the 15th. He needs to seem like he’s in control. He needs to hold Romney’s feet to the fire.”

And while Ginger does assign the debates to some of his classes, there’s one lesson he teaches students that campaign managers might not appreciate: “I told them it’s better to lose a debate than to be unethical and cheat and make something up.”

Tags: Politics
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