Democratic Debate Recap: A clash of styles

As public speaking and debate coaches, we look at presidential debates through the lens of our own work: what is each candidates' style, strategy, and ability to execute?

You can read our recap of the second GOP debate here.

As for the Democrats, this is what Speech Labs partner Andrew Markoff saw last night:

Hillary Clinton was a little nervous, in a good way.

Secretary Clinton does something that many of us do when we speak in public. She rocks slightly back and forth, shifting her weight between her left and right feet, which are parallel to each other. Unlike Martin O’Malley, she does not turn her whole body, in place of hand gestures, to emphasize a point. Bernie Sanders may have a similar issue, but a shot from behind the lecterns revealed that he deals with it by standing with one foot far in front of the other, like a runner’s starting position.

It seems that Secretary Clinton, like the vast majority of us, is not a natural-born public speaker. She has tamed her nervous sways through decades of practice. They are almost imperceptible, but they are there. Despite this, she gave a stellar performance. In fact, my hunch about her nervousness squares perfectly with what we know about Clinton’s debate preparations: she studies almost obsessively. She is willing to out-work anyone. This was obvious at so many points last night. Nothing caught her off guard; she was ready for the TPP, ready for the e-mails, ready for guns. She balanced toughness with humor. She moved seamlessly through her key positions. By all accounts her team is thrilled with her performance, and they should be. So am I. Clinton last night demonstrated the absolute importance of coaching and practice.                                     

Bernie Sanders is a natural.

There are, of course, a few who just have “it.” Bernie Sanders is one of them.

Prior to last night, he either held one mock debate, or didn’t bother. Senator Sanders wanted to take his bombastic style, forged in arena rallies, and translate it to the debate stage. I thought he succeeded. Sanders came out of the gate engaged, aggressive, louder than the rest. He regularly cut off Anderson Cooper before Cooper could finish questions. But he wasn’t just angry: he was completely in his element. He slouched. He asked the moderators to repeat questions. He stumbled in the middle of sentences, sometimes badly. He gave Jim Webb an endearing pat on the back. Senator Sanders was not as polished as Hillary Clinton, but that was the beauty of his performance. He will always debate on his own terms.

Martin O’Malley had a good plan, but failed to execute.

Governor O’Malley started strong: clear and articulate. He was urgent to enter the cross-fire early. On the second question, raised his hand to object to Sanders when the Senator had barely completed a sentence. Good: he needed to be aggressive. But as the minutes ticked on, he failed to land any memorable lines.

As the debate went on, it seemed his will to fight fizzled out. Perhaps he did not train for the length of the debate: two hours is a long time. Endurance is a key part of public speaking. O’Malley seemed tired, at least less animated, by the end. By his closing statement, he had lost his combativeness with other candidates and failed to draw contrasts. He seemed to lose weight as we watched.

Jim Webb did not have a strategy.

Or if he did, it wasn’t clear to me. Senator Webb is a perfectly capable speaker, if a little dry. But he did nothing to differentiate himself. He turned down opportunities to talk about his war record, giving Bernie Sanders a pass on being a conscientious objector, and failing to mention his experience during the foreign policy segments. His attempt to bring up his combat wounds from Vietnam seemed quick and uninspired, as if he had thought of it on the spot. He did spend a lot of time complaining about not speaking. You may recall this tactic from the Republican debates. Scott Walker used it often. That may not bode well for the Senator from Virginia.

Lincoln Chafee disappeared.

He was the butt of a memorable moment for Hillary Clinton: her one-word refusal (“no”) to answer his e-mail speech. He may have also been, unintentionally, the biggest casualty of O’Malley’s strategy. Governor O’Malley was intent on turning to face the other candidates. Since three of them were on his right, his back was to Senator Chafee almost the entire time. O’Malley may have literally boxed Chafee out of the debate.