Tonight is going to be the most consequential presidential debate in American history; at least according to the brilliant pundits who have been pushing this narrative for the last few weeks.
Hyperbole aside, this debate will likely matter in the grand scheme of things.
Donald Trump has closed the gap in national and battleground state polls over the last month. On average, Clinton still leads by a few points nationally, and polls show her continuing to lead, slightly, in her “firewall” states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. On the other hand, Florida and Nevada are still tied despite a demographic landscape that should favor Clinton in both states; and Trump has pulled comfortably ahead in Iowa and may be starting to pull away in Ohio.
So if either of these candidates faceplants like President Obama did in the first debate of 2012, it could shift the polls a fair amount given the high number of undecided voters still out there.
In a perfect world, where cable news, pundits, etc. were concerned with actual information instead of hyperbolic sensationalism, Trump would be the candidate with the most to prove on Monday night. But this is not a perfect world.
Instead, the media has gone to great lengths to set the bar as low as possible, again, for Donald Trump. Basically, all he has to do is not act like the belligerent racist he is, and he wins the debate because he “exceeded expectations” and “looked presidential.” It doesn’t matter if he knows anything about the complexities of the economy or foreign policy; he’ll have a good night just by virtue of acting like a halfway normal human being. Qualifications for the job of President of the United States be damned.
Because of these bottom barrel expectations, all of the pressure is on Hillary Clinton.
That being said, each candidate does have challenges to overcome. For Hillary Clinton, she has to avoid getting Gored; as in Al Gored.
Democrats seem to be a bit overconfident going into this debate. It reminds me of what many were saying before the first debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Their first debate was going to be the moment when Bush was exposed to millions of Americans as someone with little knowledge of complex issues who wasn’t remotely qualified to hold the office of president, against the better versed, and more experienced sitting Vice President. We are hearing the same storyline going into this debate as well.
The predictions in 2000 were correct. Gore clearly had more policy depth than Bush did. Unfortunately, that was not the big story after the debate was over. See, Gore’s experience and policy advantage was overshadowed by a horrendous act he committed. What was the horrendous act? He sighed during a few exchanges with Bush.
Seriously. One candidate showed he was qualified and ready to be president, the other did not, and all the media could could talk about was Al Gore sighing too much.
Fast forward to 2016, and the stories already write themselves. If Clinton gives complex answers on issues, because they are, you know, complex, she will have come off as too lawyerly. If she goes hard after Donald Trump the question will be “did she come off as too mean and too unlikable?” Through no fault of her own, this puts Clinton in a really tough spot.
While the first challenge will be hard, if not impossible for her to overcome, the second one is not. She has to give people a reason to vote for her.
Throughout most of the campaign, Clinton has focused on going hard after Trump. Living in the DC media market, I see a lot of campaign ads targeting Virginia voters and every single one of them are Hillary Clinton ads telling people why Donald Trump shouldn’t be president. Which is fine. There is certainly plenty of ammunition to use on that argument.
I wrote back in June, and my point still stands. Clinton needs to give people are reason to support her, and not just be against Trump. The June ads were a good start, but then they tailed off.
From that point until the convention it was all negative, all the time. The Democratic National Convention brought back a mix of Trump bashing and positive stories about Clinton and how she has helped better the lives of a number of Americans, her experience and readiness for the job. As a result, she got a sizable bounce in the polls as the race headed into the late summer and early fall.
Similar to what happened in June, the positive stories were buried under an avalanche of negative ads against Donald Trump. The biggest flaw in this strategy is people, as much as they may dislike Donald Trump, dislike her just as much. Throw in a few news cycles about the Clinton Foundation and her email server, and voters tend to see the two candidates as equally bad; not Donald Trump as being a uniquely awful candidate and human being. And seeing as how Trump is representing the “change candidate” voters are beginning to feel more comfortable with the thought of him leading the country.
The only way for Clinton to change this is to tell voters what she would do as president and tie it into her experience helping people and working in a bipartisan way to do it. She should also tell the story of how hard she really had it growing up and how it shaped her desire for public service and to help everyday Americans.
Voters today only see Hillary Clinton as dishonest and secretive. Tonight’s audience is expected to rival the Super Bowl, so she has a great chance to appeal to upwards of 100 million voters and chip away at that narrative.
It worked during the convention, and Hillary being more of herself has appealed to voters in the past (i.e. New Hampshire 2008). If she wants to re-open a lead in the polls, she has no choice but to do so again tonight.
Two interesting things to watch for tonight relating to Trump are the audience and debate format. Presidential debates are much different animals than primary debates. First and foremost, the crowd is taken out of the equation. Audience members are allowed to applaud when the candidates are introduced and walk out on stage; after that they remain silent throughout.
Trump’s biggest asset as a candidate is playing off of his audience. It is what helped him secure the nomination in the first place. But this time, he will not have a raucous crowd at his disposal and his one-liners may not be as effective in front of one that is silent. It will be interesting to watch how he deals with this.
One thing you may have noticed in the primary debates is once the conversation delved into detailed policy discussions, Trump would lay low, let the other candidates fight each other, then come in at the end with one of his “Make America Great” slogans, which the crowd ate up. Like the crowd dynamic, Trump will not have the luxury of retreating in this debate, which, I assume, will revolve around detailed policy discussions.
The debate is 90 minutes long and broken up into six 15 minute segments, with no commercial breaks. So Trump will have more of the spotlight on him than ever before in a debate setting. How will he stand up to the scrutiny of both the moderator (hopefully) and Hillary Clinton for that length of time, with no place, or other candidate, to hide behind? If the Commander-In-Chief forum held a few weeks ago was any indication, the answer is not good. We’ll see if anything changes tonight.
As I said before, for a media that seems more interested in clicks and ratings, it may not matter if Trump completely falls on his face tonight. If he does indeed do this, Clinton’s campaign just has to hope voters in swing states see through the media noise of “yea, but Trump looked presidential” and throw their support behind her once and for all. If not, the panic level among Democrats will only get higher.