Monday, September 26, 2016

Trump v. Clinton: What to Expect from the Debate

As the national polls suggest that the Trump-Clinton race is deadlocked, and Clinton has only a narrow lead in several key battleground states, the candidates enter into the first of three debates tonight.  It may be the most watched political event ever.  NBC anchor Lester Holt is the moderator. The one certain thing in this debate is that Holt is unlikely to make either candidate happy regardless of how he handles his duties.

What is the debate advice being parceled out to the candidates?  The common advice to most candidates  is to "loosen up and just be yourself." This may be the one time that advice doesn't apply.
 The American public despises these two candidates.  Polling shows that they are the two most unpopular candidates the major parties have ever nominated, by a wide, wide margin.  The one consistent metric in picking presidential winners for over half a century is that the candidate who is best liked, wins.

Trump and Clinton have a mission.  They first and foremost need to come across as likable, someone for whom the 15% of the voters on the fence in this election would feel comfortable voting for.  Clinton and Trump need to show a graciousness and humility neither have demonstrated thus far.

A commentator on one of the Sunday morning political shows suggested that Trump needs to show depth on the issues.  That ship long ago left the dock.  Knowing details about policy is Clinton's strong suit and Trump would be foolish to sail into those water.  If Trump is smart, which I've seen no evidence of thus far, he will focus on the big picture, change themes which are winners in this election cycle. If Clinton is smart, which I've occasionally seen evidence of, she will bait Trump and get him to go off message and attack her.

Trump has an additional challenge - he needs to look presidential, like someone people (at least those few undecided voters left) would be comfortable with in the White House.

On paper, this debate should be no contest.  Hillary Clinton is an experienced debater and excelled in that forum against Senator Bernie Sanders.  Trump, on the hand, turned in very lackluster debate performances during the Republican primaries often appearing like a wallflower who never gets asked to dance.   Several times Trump was booed by the GOP audiences when he said outrageous things that  seemed to be more about gaining attention than serious policy proposals.  No one seriously viewed Trump as a "winner" of any of the GOP debates.  The best that was often said was that he exceeded expectations.

Indeed, that is Trump's ace-in-the-hole in his confrontation with Hillary Clinton.  In politics a debater's performance is never measured against the opponent, but rather against what the expectations are for that debater.  Everyone expects Trump to fail short on policy and not look presidential and to say outrageous things.  So if he doesn't fail as badly as is expected, suddenly he will be viewed as a winner.

Finally, the key to success in the debate might not be what happens at the debate, but what transpires afterward. Watch for the campaigns use the traditional media and social media to convince the talking heads and the public that their their candidate won.  In the first debate President Obama had with Mitt Romney in 2012, the Romney people outmaneuvered post-debate the Obama team and turned a win on points performance into a knockout.

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