PBS: By the People, Election 2004
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Persuasion and Political Debate

To paraphrase Aristotle, rhetoric is the ability to identify the best ways to persuade an audience under the given circumstances. One of the most critical differences candidates for president must learn is how a public address is different from a formal debate. In this exercise students will explore rhetorical strategies and the difficulties inherent in trying to advance arguments in the face of partisan opposition.

Estimated Time of Completion: 2 hours

I. Objectives
II. Necessary Materials
III. Teaching Procedure
IV. Assessement Recommendations
V. Extension/Adaptation Ideas
VI. Online Resources
VII. Relevant National Standards

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I. Objectives
Students will:

  • understand the role of rhetoric in developing persuasive messages;
  • critique and assess rhetorical strategies employed by political campaigns;
  • understand the relationship between choice of message and the communication environment.

II. Necessary Materials

  • tables and chairs for the debates
  • podium for speakers (optional)

III. Teaching Procedure

1. This exercise is divided into two class-long segments: a "campaign segment" and a "presidential debate segment." Two groups of six students each are asked to prepare arguments for or against a real campaign topic (gun control, national healthcare, defense spending, school vouchers) on behalf of a real party (Democrat, Republican, Reform, Green). Both groups should divide themselves so that 3 students are "debaters" and 3 are "campaigners."

The two groups ("pro" and "con") are allowed to meet for at least an hour to prepare their presentations to the class. Notes should be permitted, and the groups should be allowed to divide up their arguments between the three speakers as they see fit.

2. Campaign segment. Begin by having the "campaigners" give short speeches to the class. "Pro campaigners" should begin. The "pro debaters," as well as the entire "con" group, should wait outside of the classroom (separating groups will prevent the "debaters" from mimicking "campaigners, and " cons" from getting an advantage by listening to the "pros" arguments).

The "pro campaigners" should give three 5-minute speeches and present their arguments and examples to support their side. Presenters should be encouraged to explain each of their points with examples or illustrations rather than just list ideas.

The class may be encouraged to keep notes on each speaker and take down key points made in each speech.

At the end of the "pro campaigners'" three speeches, the 3 "con campaigners" should then give their speeches to the class. (The "pro" team that just spoke may remain in the classroom since they're done.)

A vote is quickly taken to determine which side the class thought did the better job.

The class takes a short break but the "pro debaters" and the "con debaters" always remain outside the classroom so they don't hear or collaborate with their colleagues.

3. Presidential debate segment. Now starts the "debate segment." Both the "pro" and the "con" debaters should be brought into the room and seated so as to face the entire class. Before returning to class, the teams should choose a main speaker, an examiner and a rebuttal speaker. This could take place on a second class day immediately following the campaign segment.

The following format is followed:

  • Main "pro" speaker - 8 minutes
  • Questions from the "con" examiner - 3 minutes
  • Main "con" speaker - 8 minutes
  • Questions from the "pro" examiner - 3 minutes
  • Rebuttal "pro" speaker - 7 minutes
  • Questions from the "con" examiner - 3 minutes
  • Rebuttal "con" speaker - 7 minutes
  • Questions from the "pro" examiner - 3 minutes

At the end of the "debate segment" another vote is taken.

4. Discussion. The instructor now lists the arguments from each speech in order from the "campaign segment" and the "debate segment." Invariably, the lists will be different.

Those differences are crucial to the consideration of the how strategies develop and how those strategies can change when criticism is immediate and direct. Arguments or issues that appear in the "campaign segment" but not in the "debate segment" may indicate either mistakes, panic or weakness.

Arguments or issues that were used in the "debate segment" but not in the "campaign segment" may have been perceived by the debaters as perhaps stronger because they were more logical, clearer or an answer to a point made by an opponent.

The instructor can also suggest different patterns for arranging arguments for maximum appeal. Some may want to place their strongest argument last so that the opposition spends most of their time dwelling on the weak points given at the beginning of the speech. Another strategy is to try and "hide" a side's weakest argument in the middle of a speech bracketed by much stronger points hoping the opposition or audience just glides by without notice.

Real examples from the campaign can be used. For example, George W. Bush might avoid altogether the argument of the state of economy in many of his presentations, while Al Gore may do the same for arguments relating to the personal behavior of leaders in office.

If used, the instructor should also discuss the appearance of arguments meant to preempt an opposing argument. These preemption arguments are effective if one side can accurately predict what the other side is going to do. For example, a team arguing for gun control might argue the Second Amendment meant to cover just rifles to preempt Constitutional issues. Another category of argument that may be identified is the "turn." A turn argument takes an opposing argument and flips it to support the other side. For example, in a rebuttal speech a debater for increased immigration might "turn" the argument of transmission of foreign diseases by arguing that once immigrants are made legal they will seek medical treatment without fear of being deported.

IV. Assessment Recommendations
Besides content analysis, the instructor should evaluate the order of each side's arguments. Both the "campaign" speakers and the "debate" speakers should be asked to explain why the order between them varied. How did the "debate environment" with time limits, cross-examination and opponent's attacks change their content? How did it change their style of delivery? Could the argument choice or order have been better? Did anyone in class change their vote between the two "segments"? Did the "debate segment" seem more exciting or more interesting to the voters in class?

The instructor should compare the classroom activity to what really happens in the presidential campaign with speeches at events like whistle stops or conventions versus what happens at the formal presidential debates. Note how both the candidate or campaign can manipulate the message differently when there is no anticipation of direct response or criticism. What can Gore or Bush say if they know no one is going to rebut their remarks?

V. Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Teachers can review videotapes of convention or campaign speeches using the same analysis. Following the speaker on the blackboard, a student can take down the arguments in order of presentation. The instructor can then lead a discussion on the strategy behind the placement of each argument, keeping in mind that the actual presidential candidates will be more sophisticated in their strategies than the average group of students.

Videotapes of presidential debates may be reviewed to track how the same arguments appeared, modified or disappeared when an opponent was standing in the same room.

VI. Online Resources
Commission on Presidential Debates

National Forensics League

VII. Relevant National Standards
These are established by McREL at

Language Arts

  • Demonstrates competence in the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing/ul>

    Thinking and Reasoning
  • Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument

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