The first Presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle is almost upon us. A record 100 million viewers are expected to tune into the verbal battle between the first women ever to capture a major party’s nomination and a man who is undoubtedly one of the most unusual major party nominees in the history of this country. Everyone seems to believe this is going to be HUUUUGE, but is it really? Many experts who have studied Presidential debates down through the years, beginning with the first televised debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, agree that the perceived importance of Presidential debates has been more hype than reality.
For instance, studies show that over the years there have been little differences in the polls results before and after the debates. In only two cases, in 1980 and 2000, have the poll leader and his opponent switched places in the polls after the first debate. In every case, the poll leader after the first debate won the election, regardless of the outcome of the following debates. Therefore historically the best indicator of the ultimate winner of a Presidential election is the person leading in the polls going into the first debate.
The most important aspect of the Presidential debates is voter education. For the many voters who haven’t been paying close attention to the battle between the campaigns, the debates offer an opportunity to learn more about the candidates, their demeanors, and about their positions on the issues. This is usually a better opportunity for the challenger, who generally isn’t as well known, to make his/her case to a large segment of the voters perhaps for the first time.
However, in this election cycle there isn’t incumbent President, so there technically is no challenger. In addition, this has been such an interesting Presidential election cycle and both candidates are so well known that one would think a large majority of the voters are fairly well acquainted with their positions as well. An argument could be made that Donald Trump might be considered the challenger because he is an outsider challenging the political establishment. However, Trump has put forward few real plans except his pledge to “make America great again” and his positions seem to change daily depending on which way the political wind is blowing. If given an opportunity to do so, policy wonk Hillary Clinton will share with the voting public her plans in as many areas as the moderator chooses to discuss.
Experts who have studied debates over the years have determined that debates don’t so much sway voters one way or another as much as they harden already established partisan positions. So under normal conditions we shouldn’t expect the polls to change more than one or two percents as a result of a debate. However, I am at a loss to predict what the hardening of established partisan positions means in light of theses two candidates. Trump is by no means a typical Republican conservative. His stated views stray far from traditional Republican orthodoxy; in some cases he has staked out positions to the left of Clinton’s. On the other, hand many progressives who normally vote for Democrats view Hillary as not liberal enough. So overall it is difficult to see exactly how this debate maxim will apply this year.
Debate experts also have discovered by studying past debates that undecided voters often tend to side with the more physically attractive of the two candidates. However, whether a 68 year old grandmother is more attractive than an overweight billionaire with an orange tan and complicated comb over is definitely in the eye of the beholder
Also studies indicate that the opinions of debate viewers are more likely to be swayed by reactions of the network talking heads after the debate than the performances of the candidates. Evidently many people trust the opinions of so called political experts more than their own eyes and ears, which is kind of sad when you think about it. So a person’s decision about the outcome of a debate might depend on which TV news channel that person watches after the debate or the next day. And don’t forget that regardless of how big the viewing audience for the first debate, many other voters will not watch for one reason or the other and their opinions will be affected in the following days by the prevailing media meme.
However, all of these studies have been conducted using data gathered from previous Presidential debates which have always featured basically equal candidates who are both extremely well briefed on the issues. Donald Trump is the total wild card. Everyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to this electoral contest knows that Trump is nowhere near the equal of Hillary Clinton in experience or knowledge of the pertinent issues and he apparently isn’t much interested in spending the time to get up to speed. He would rather just “wing it”. However, in the era of Washington gridlock, when the public is sick and tired of the inability of the political establishment to address the nation’s problems, the businessman turned reality show star who presents himself as the outsider alternative has done well with this totally unconventional approach.
Hillary is widely considered by far the more experienced and refined candidate so public expectations of Trump in the debates are lower than those of his opponent. However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that he bullied his way past many seasoned politicians in the Republican debates using lies, name calling, personal attacks and almost no substance. If there are those who have seen this kind of politician before on the national stage, it isn’t anyone living today. Trump has lately been trying to present himself as more Presidential, so how does he meld that persona with the style that made him successful in previous debates? On the other hand, how does Hillary, the policy wonk, reinforce her image as the best prepared candidate while exposing Trump as the deplorable fraud that he is?
What does Trump have to do to win the debate? Many experts believe that he can use his low expectations to his advantage. As one political consultant pointed out, he doesn’t have to actually win the debate; he just needs to beat the point spread. That is he just has to do better than expected. To achieve that goal he has to act Presidential and he can’t try to get down in the policy weeds with Clinton, because in that venue he has no chance. He has to keep his statements general and stay away from details that can reach up and bite him.
Not that any of this will be easy. Expecting Donald Trump to remain Presidential though a full hour and a half debate is a big ask. He has to stay away from name calling and telling lies that can be easily debunked, not an easy task for the master ridiculer and con man. In addition, the debate format – six 15 minutes segments, each devoted to a major campaign topic, will make it difficult for Trump to stick with generalities devoid of detail. The moderator’s questions will be aimed at getting the candidates to divulge their detailed plans for curing the nations’ ills.
On the other hand Hillary can not spend all of her time trying to exploit her strong suit – her knowledge of details of domestic and foreign policy. Much of that would be wasted on the average voter who is more impressed with moments where one or other of the candidates is clearly out classed. In addition, many people end up voting for someone they like. Hillary can’t always be the stern steely eyed expert. She has to be able to display the warmth and humor that her friends and associates all say she has in abundance.
On the other hand, she also has to be on the attack. If the opportunities don’t present themselves naturally as a result of moderator’s questions, Hillary needs to quickly answer questions concisely and then pivot sharply to attack on a related issue where Trump is vulnerable. For instance, the spending of other people’s contributions to his charitable organization for his personal use, his lack of transparency in providing his income tax returns and his business associations, and the many ties between his campaign and Putin’s Russia appear to be rich targets of opportunity.
If Hillary keeps Trump off balance defending himself and his campaign through out the entire debate the public will see that she has won easily. Of course he will try to do the same. If Hillary can force Trump to resort to his normal street brawl tactics while maintaining her dignity and Presidential bearing and then pointing out his lack of composure under fire, it won’t even be close.
She also has to be quick to counter any of Trump’s attacks and debunk the lies and gross exaggerations for which he is famous. If Lester Holt wants to avoid the public drubbing which Matt Lauer had to endure after the Commander and Chief Forum, he will have to be prepared to keep Trump’s falsehoods under control. However, Hillary can’t bank on that happening. For instance, if Trump reverts to form and denies one of his past despicable comments, she has attack that denial efficiently with razor like sharpness. For instance if she could repeat Trump’s own words verbatim, providing date and place he said them. That would be devastating.
So while experts use studies of past Presidential debates to forecast that the coming debates probably won’t have much affect on the final outcome of upcoming election, no one can deny that this Presidential election cycle as been like no other. Perhaps it is so different that conventional wisdom no longer applies. Consequently in this exceedingly close election, the debates may be pivotal. In my opinion, to win, both candidates must step out of their normal comfort zones if they want to score big enough to pave their way to victory in November