Mastering the debate game

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American political campaigns have devolved into a great, nationwide reality game show whose two-year seasons seem endless. Think about it: Donald Trump’s claim to fame before he became president was as celebrity host and producer of a popular elimination reality game show, “The Apprentice.”

During a campaign, and especially during timed debates, the strategy is to control the narrative. Watch for these rhetorical tricks politicans use to grab sound bites and stand out from the crowd.

Ad Feminam

A variation on the ad hominem personal attack, this suggests your opponent doesn’t have the necessary background because she is a woman.

Ad Hominem

Latin for “to the man,” this questions your opponent’s character rather than addressing the topic at hand.

And You’re Another

Related to ad hominem and name-calling attacks, this responds in kind instead of sticking to the subject.

Begging the question

Assuming the truth of the conclusion as part of the argument for it. Also known as arguing in a circle.


When comparing a condition over time, selecting the starting point favorable to your argument: Did the economic resurgence start under Obama or Trump?

Big Lie

A trick popularized by Adolf Hitler. A lie told often enough and loudly enough is eventually accepted as fact.

Bigger Lie

Responding that your opponent is using the Big Lie, a trick used by the Nazis, thereby associating your opponent with the Nazis.


There’s a level of progression between going on the offensive, becoming aggressive, and outright bullying on a debate stage. The last two election cycles have seen several cases that crossed the line.

Changing the Rules

As in sports or games, free and open debate means you must follow rules that are agreed upon in advance. Rules may be updated as needed, but not changed in mid-debate or without mutual consent.

Changing the Subject

Answering a question about topic A with what you want to say about topic B. Frequently used in the early debates when candidates want to push certain parts of their agenda.


Related to benchmarking, this is selecting data that supports your position while the complete picture may tell another story.

Dark History

Related to ad hominem, this brings up skeletons in the closet that may or may not be provable today.

False Choice

Arguing that there are only two possible outcomes when in fact there may be alternatives or a middle ground.

False Comparison

Best known as “comparing apples and oranges,” this also can apply to arguing that a certain outcome stemmed from an unrelated cause.


Related to The Big Lie, this technique gets its name from the 1944 movie “Gaslight,” in which husband Charles Boyer attempts to drive wife Ingrid Bergman mad by denying things that did happen and creating situations that she doesn’t remember. It’s rare in actual debates but is used in controlling the narrative throughout a campaign.

Guilt by Association

Arguing that because your opponent is a member of a party or group, or endorsed by a party or group, the opponent supports everything that group does.

Misquotes and Quotes Out of Context

Paraphrasing or quoting your opponent in such a way as to make them mean something other than originally intended. A misquote is something that wasn’t said, or wasn’t said in those words. A quote out of context may be an accurate quote, but presented in a way that doesn’t give all the facts.


Giving your opponents unsavory labels and forcing them to defend against them.

Name Game

If you can successfully give something a name, you can control it. Used successfully in primaries for the 2016 election and returning in 2020.


National policy issues are complex. Coming up with a sound-bite solution (or summarizing your opponent’s solution) glosses over the details.


It’s a simple rule and violators are easy to spot. There’s a time limit on responses, both to the moderator’s questions and to challenges from opponents.


Candidates can promise anything, but to achieve it as law usually requires the cooperation of the White House and both houses of Congress.

Straw Man

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Misrepresenting your opponent’s position on a topic and then knocking it down. Related to the Big Lie and Oversimplification, this puts the opponent on the defensive to explain the true meaning.