Time is almost up for the Clinton and Trump campaigns, a reality that many will greet with a sigh (or existential heave) of relief. Last night’s debate may have been both candidates’ last, best chance to persuade voters to cast a ballot in their favor.
If you look at the long, tawdry, frequently shocking election cycle as a drawn-out pitch to the American people, the third and final debate represents its closing arguments—its kicker. So Fast Company asked a venture capitalist and a trial lawyer, both battle-tested experts on what it takes to wrap up a compelling argument, to weigh in on which candidate may have done that better.
Dharmesh Thakker is a general partner at the tech investment firm Battery Ventures, where he hears some 5,500 pitches a year, resulting in just 15–20 actual investments.
"In our years of experience," says Thakker, "we’ve found that domain expertise and execution ability, along with a strategic vision, are the most critical components of long-term success for entrepreneurs and startups." Ending your pitch without demonstrating those qualities may make for a losing argument.
As Thakker sees it, Trump kept the focus on "why the political incumbents have failed colossally" in order to paint himself as a disruptor. But Thakker says he was left wanting "to hear more details on his plan to effect change . . . This probably wouldn’t work in a tech-company pitch to my partners and me: ‘Making America Great Again’ sounds like ‘Making IT Cool Again,’ but begs for more details on how exactly you achieve your goals."
Thakker meets with many entrepreneurs who may have an innovative solution but not the expertise to put it into action. In last night’s debate, he felt Clinton did a better job proving her chops as a "domain expert." However, says Thakker, "She often lacked the charisma and emotional IQ to inspire her audience. I wouldn’t go as far as calling her a ‘nasty woman’ as the ‘bad hombre’ on stage did, though."
He also adds: "I have certainly never seen a company we passed on come back to ‘reject’ our decision, since they felt it was rigged against them!"
Thakker’s final assessment: Clinton had the more substantive pitch, but Trump won some style points.
Norm Pattis is more circumspect. An experienced trial attorney who’s argued more than 100 trials and won several million-dollar verdicts, he found last night’s debate not just ineffective as a "closing argument," but pretty dispiriting. "Were this a trial, I doubt there would be a winner."
In court, says Pattis, "One party—either the plaintiff, in a civil matter, or the government, in a criminal case—wants something from the defendant. The party wanting something must persuade jurors to give it to them . . . by relying on enough proof to tip the scales in their favor." The key difference, though, is that "there aren’t mistrials in elections, and the candidates know it. Thus, political argument has become forensically sterile."
Looking for evidence to base a decision on, much as VCs like Thakker do, Pattis found mostly rhetorical sleights of hand. "Donald is a master at the ‘pivot.’ When pressed about his tax returns, he counters with an attack on Hillary’s emails. It’s a dishonest version of the tu quoque or 'you, too' argument," he says. "Jurors regarding this mudslinging might easily conclude that neither party is to be trusted, and might well tune out . . . Liars don’t motivate; neither do hypocrites."
There were also "assertions that mischaracterize or mislead," says Pattis, commonly known as red herrings. "A classic from last night’s debate? Donald’s claim that Hillary’s defense of partial birth abortion entails her willingness to rip a nine-month-old fetus from a mother’s womb to engage in infanticide." In Pattis’s view, "Donald effectively wielded this brickbat against Hillary. She appeared so stunned by it that she did not know how to respond. Rather than deny it, she engaged in a species of pathos, saying she wished that Donald had met some of the women she had met."
However, says Pattis, "The exchange illuminated nothing . . . The wisdom of jurors penalizes lawyers who engage in these forms of misdirection. That we have come to expect it from politicians is ominous."
It isn’t that trials hinge strictly on a dispassionate view of the facts. As Pattis notes, "every forensic contest, much like a presidential election, is a morality play. People want to decide between good and evil. That is a far easier thing to do than making difficult judgments about policies."
The problem, as he sees it, is that both candidates focused more on smearing one another’s character than on presenting compelling evidence. "Both are playing defensively, attacking their adversary as unfit. That’s a fine strategy is you’re playing for a mistrial," says Pattis. "But in electoral politics, someone always wins."
His verdict? Unreachable.