Judging debate winners and losers is difficult for a multitude of reasons. Does one judge on factual accuracy or political points or style and substance, and who is the relevant audience and what are the immediate effects and lasting consequences?
Last night’s debate between California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was a barn burner because of the great clashes and insults by both debaters.
I have been interested in debate for a long time and am the donor for a $2000/yr. “Best Debater” award each year at Towson University. I believe I got my graduate scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh because I won a high-profile debate in front of Dr. Robert P. Newman, the director of the William Pitt Debating Union at Pitt.
I am not going to fact-check this debate because there is no evidence that fact-checking hurts candidates unless one says that the Ku Klux Klan is his go-to source or that New York City is the capital of New York State.
Debate Style – Newsom Wins Strongly
The fluency and aplomb of Newsom was far more compelling than that of DeSantis. The former’s habit of challengingly looking at his opponent and the latter’s aversion to look at his reminded me of the destructive difference between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen in their famous vice presidential debate of 1988.
Quayle looked frozen as Bentsen said his famous line “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy; I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine; Senator, You’re no Jack Kennedy” after Quayle had compared himself to JFK.
It was nowhere as bad as that, but it’s in the same category. Also, DeSantis’ smile looked, and there is no other word for it, peculiar. Why cannot his peeps get him a natural-looking smile? The candidates talked over each other consistently, with the worse offender being Newsom, but that probably did not hurt him. The format rightly chose to eliminate the audience, but Fox should have eliminated the interruptions through microphone control.
Debate Substance – DeSantis Wins Going Away
DeSantis won on every point, save abortion: economy, crime, education, immigration and the border, parental rights, gas prices, and taxes. Hannity had contrasting statistical graphs on all of them from disinterested sources that showed differences positively accruing to Florida and conservatives vis a vis California and Newsom.
Whenever Newsom and California were caught by a topic with poor factual differences vis-a-vis DeSantis and Florida, Newsom just ignored the topic or segued to an off-topic concern or citing Nikki Haley (who should demand equal time with Hannity) or DeSantis’ losing to Donald Trump in the polls.
DeSantis: how about your $7:50/gallon gas prices? Newsom had no direct answer. DeSantis points out California’s high taxes; Newsom says Biden has lower taxes for Black America. DeSantis says in California women cannot even wear their jewelry in public, it’s so dangerous; Newsom says his laws are better and California’s crime rate has plummeted (less than Florida’s? Nothing on that).
DeSantis is unlikely to gain much on Nikki Haley except over time, much less on Donald Trump from this debate. Newsom’s audience is Democrats, and he seems to be more and more the odds-on favorite to replace Biden if Biden is not the nominee, while he demonstrated profound support for both Biden and Kamala Harris and took no bait to disparage them.
Debate victory for Ron DeSantis and long-term benefit for Gavin Newsom.
Richard E. Vatz is professor emeritus of political rhetoric at Towson University and author of The Only Authentic of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model (Authors Press, 2022) and many other works, essays and op-eds. He is a Distinguished Professor at Towson University and has won a number of teaching awards.