Debates and Life: Determining Success and Who Wins

Setting a standard to judge by helps in finding the outcome.

— -- Defining who won can be difficult if the standard of success isn't defined clearly. This is as true in life as it is in politics.

Sometimes people in their life define success as professional accomplishment, financial gain, notoriety, material goods (houses, cars, etc). Other people define success as the depth of their relationships, living a life of integrity, or the breadth and manner of love.

I would argue that a win in life is going to be much better defined by the latter, though some of us confuse winning by too-often focusing on the former. This doesn't allow us to really see or experience what a win feels or looks like.

Now let's take a look at the political debates in this election year. Too often, pundits, partisans, and the media define a debate win by who scored the most points in that night, or who had better rhetoric, or who came across with better style. These are only some ways to look at success -- and often misrepresents who actually won.

Watch the second presidential debate, co-moderated by ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, on ABC News and at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 9.

In my view, winning a debate at the presidential level should be defined by whether the candidate changed the trajectory of the race to a more advantageous position with voters who will decide the election in November.

While watching the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, this is exactly the perspective I tried to keep in mind. I observed each of their performances and interactions through the lens of whether it would give advantage to one or the other among the voters.

From that perspective, I gave the win to Clinton. It was my assessment that her performance or, more importantly, Trump's poor performance, would help give Clinton an advantage among some undecided voters, but more importantly, increase the level of enthusiasm among her partisans. I speculated in the aftermath of the debate that she would gain 2 or 3 points in the polls and take a 4 or 5 point national lead. And, humbly, that is exactly what happened, according to the averages of national post-debate polls.

Now, let us look again at the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine. Using the perspective laid out above, after the debate was over while Pence won on style and Kaine won on substance, I thought the debate was going to be a draw. Why? I thought Pence helped himself in the debate, which will likely improve his own favorability numbers, but I didn't think it would benefit Trump at the top of the ticket very much. For Kaine, while he made an effective argument against Trump, that was offset by the manner with which he conducted himself.

Each of their performances likely made their own partisans happy. And because of this offsetting dynamic, there would likely be no change in the trajectory of the race -- it was likely to stay at a 4 or 5 point Hillary advantage until the next presidential debate Sunday night. No change in the race, to me, means no winner.

Some seeds were sewn that may continue to be problematic for Trump. If he doesn't change his demeanor for the next debate, then the contrast with Pence's calm, cool and collected tone will be striking and that will not helpful to Trump.

A little history: I worked for Senator Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 and, by every account, he bested Dan Quayle in that now-famous vice presidential debate in Omaha. It didn't change the trajectory of the Dukakis-Bush race in any significant way. It did improve Bentsen's own favorability numbers, and allowed him to win his U.S. Senate race that year by a landslide.

But in the aftermath of the debate, there were many conversations around the country about how much better Bentsen was than Dukakis and many people wanting Bentsen to be the nominee. This did not help Dukakis in his race against Bush at all. So, while a Bentsen victory helped his own candidacy, in many ways it contributed to undermining Dukakis as a flawed candidate.

Remember, determine what really is the standard of success you want, and then base winning on that standard. Otherwise determining a win in a very confused environment like politics or life becomes increasingly difficult. Set the proper standard, then judge based on that standard.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.

Watch FULL LIVE COVERAGE of the second presidential debate, co-moderated by ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 9. Coverage and analysis of the debate will begin on at 7 p.m. ET.