Conventional wisdom holds that presidential debates matter little.
In this election season, however, it goes without saying that conventional wisdoms matter even less.
The total audience of the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is predicted to be as high as 100 million viewers, as reported by the New York Times. To put this in perspective, around 114 million tuned into the Super Bowl this past year, and 67 million watched the first Romney-Obama debate in 2012. The debate is set up to be a mass cultural and political experience of sorts, a viewing experience shared in real time by Americans of all walks of life, backgrounds, and political differences.
Lasting for ninety minutes, uninterrupted with no commercials breaks, Monday night is a unique opportunity, unlike any other that will foreseeably present itself, to shape the race. This debate will matter. Based on the performance, either Clinton will finally get the homestretch boost she needs to solidify a lead, or the polls will remain relatively unchanged and even, showing that this race will likely remain much closer than it should until November.
Clinton and Trump are arguably the two most well-known people to ever run for the American presidency, both in terms of the depth of knowledge about them and the length of time they’ve spent in the public eye. There is hardly any new information that can be revealed about either that would drastically change public opinion, or not be spun to fit pre-existing narratives. If seeing the contrast between Trump and Clinton both in substance and style, on stage side by side for the first time, does not change the minds of voters, it is hard to see how anything will.
While predictions have routinely proved futile during this election, here are three for tonight’s debate. First, Trump will lose his cool. Second, he will blame everyone except himself. Third, the public response will depend on to what degree Trump lashes out, along with how Hillary handles herself overall.
Trump told Sean Hannity of Fox, “I will treat her with great respect unless she treats me in a certain manner, in which case that will be the end of that… I hope we can talk about policy and certain things. I am not looking to go in and treat her with disrespect.” Like most things, it is highly doubtful that Trump believed these words as he said them. In an email sent out to supporters, Trump’s campaign included a “debate preparation survey”, with questions such as if he should use his nickname Crooked Hillary onstage or ask her about her emails.
Trump is incapable of talking policy, struggling even when provided with a teleprompter, and he knows it. He will plan to avoid it; it was only a question of how desperately so, and all signs indicate very. It has been reported that Trump is not participating in any practice mock debates and becomes “bored” in long sessions. Rather, he is known to interrupt conversations with advisors to propose potential lines to use against Clinton. Certainly, with his showman instincts, Trump knows that debates are defined on memorable moments and sound bites. However, such a reliance is bound to backfire. His primary debate strategy will not suffice, given the setup of only two candidates head-to-head instead of a chorus of nearly nine, and the larger, more mainstream audience.
The Clinton campaign played the typical, pre-debate mind games by releasing a 19-page list of Trump’s fact-check lies, which Hillary is expected to call him out on in real time. The Trump campaign, on the other hand, announced that he will invite Gennifer Flowers as a special guest, sitting front-row to watch the debate. To allude to Bill Clinton’s infidelities, in a setting designed to assess something as important as the merits of each candidate and their vision for the country, is more than irrelevant or poor preparation. It is shameful.
The question is as old as June 2015, when Trump came down that golden elevator of Trump Tower to announce his presidential campaign: so what will it actually take to knock Trump off course? Ninety minutes of pure one-on-one, without commercial breaks or nearly eight other candidates to hide behind, may be what it takes. Similar to how Trump met in private with the President of Mexico after months of tough talk, claimed there was no discussion of payment for “the wall”, and then was publicly embarrassed when Peña Nieto tweeted the opposite – true exposure, beyond the faux type procured in reality TV and throughout his campaign, will always hurt him.
Trump is more than out of place on the debate stage, he is out of his league. Trump, his campaign and the Republican National Committee are already working to downplay expectations for his performance – Trump blaming “the system” and claiming the debate may be rigged because Lester Holt, the moderator, is a Democrat (although, Holt is in fact a registered Republican).
Of course, Lester Holt’s decisions regarding how to act, and how not to act, will be important. Holt, following criticism about Matt Lauer’s handling of the national security forum, is facing questions of how much he should fact-check each candidate on the spot. If he fails to do so, Clinton is prepared to – however some fear that doing so excessively will cause Clinton to come across as irritable and condescending. It is a sad truth that doing so simply to hold another candidate accountable would make a woman appear such a way, but a truth nonetheless – a truth that could have an impact on the debates’ overall reception.
Americans will see nothing extraordinarily new Monday night. However, the contrast will be presented more simply than ever. That, along with the scope of the debate – with record numbers of people tuning in across the country and the world – may initiate a reality check that will in turn encourage Americans to vote.