On Monday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will face off in the first of three presidential debates. This will be the first time voters—of whom as many as 150 million may vote on Election Day–will see both party nominees on the same stage, taking questions from a moderator, NBC News’ Lester Holt.
Debates are a chance for undecided voters to meet these candidates again for the first time.
In the lead up to the debate, the event has been characterized as a possible gamechanger. That may be true: it certainly has the capacity to change the dynamics of the race. It also has the capacity to do very little, changing few minds and leaving the candidates in the same spot they were before it began. Regardless of the outcome, tens of millions of Americans and viewers around the world who are interested in, fixated on, or even obsessed with the U.S. election will tune in, looking to see who wins.
The night will be filled with fights, jabs, policy statements, and platitudes. Along the way, there will be seven things to watch for that can have an effect on the debate, the final six weeks of the race, and ultimately the election.
Who appeals to the undecided voters
Clinton’s and Trump’s base voters are dug in. They’re either “with her” or ready to “make America great again.” Yet, there will still be a need to get out the vote on Election Day. Clinton will work to make sure progressives, millennials, women, and voters of color go to the polls. Trump will work hard to ensure white voters, older voters, members of the working class, social conservatives, and those most fed up with the status quo go cast their votes. Where the election will be won and lost—nationally and at the individual state level—is among the few undecided voters, who span the ideological divide and are looking for something different from the nominees. Both candidates thus far, have reached out aggressively to court their most ardent supporters, and in the final six weeks, the candidate who can appeal beyond their base will ultimately be elected president.
This doesn’t mean a candidate has to forsake the policies that have been running on all along. Instead, the successful candidate will use the parts of his or her vision that are most appealing to those voters, and package them in a way that will excite and connect with those who have not yet made up their mind. The debate is an ideal place to pursue such a strategy. Unlike at rallies or fundraisers or highly choreographed meet-and-greets, the debate will not be a room packed full of fans, rooting for their team. It’s a largely silent and respectful group, the energy from which no candidate can feed off of. In addition, more people will watch the debate than any single campaign event, and the ability of a candidate to reach new audiences is maximized both by one’s debate performance and subsequent news coverage of the event.
Unlike at rallies or fundraisers or highly choreographed meet-and-greets, the debate will not be a room packed full of fans, rooting for their team.
If Clinton or Trump simply continue to talk exclusively to the “decideds” and ignore the undecideds, they will do so at their own peril. If building a wall or banning Muslims or renegotiating trade deals or, alternatively, free college or paid family leave or equal pay have not yet convinced those undecideds, it likely won’t work now. Those voters need to hear something new from the candidates and be introduced to a version of the candidate who they can be most comfortable voting for. Every politician prides himself or herself on being “genuine” and not to be constantly reinventing one’s self. The reality is that candidates are constantly reinventing themselves and creating new versions that appeal to a given group at a given time. Debates are a chance for undecided voters to meet these candidates again for the first time. Whichever versions of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump takes the stage at Hofstra will tell us who is being most serious about voter outreach. If Clinton or Trump simply continue to talk exclusively to the “decideds” and ignore the undecideds, they will do so at their own peril.
Will Lester Holt be a journalist or a pawn?
The role of a moderator can be a difficult one. One needs simultaneously to be an interrogator, a referee, a timekeeper, and a disciplinarian, all while being fair and unbiased. Expectations from the public and from the campaigns vary widely and accusations of bias are launched from whichever side has a bad night.
In 2016, the challenges facing a moderator are at an all time high, as this election cycle—especially its debates—has been one of the most unpredictable and non-traditional in history. Many are calling for moderators to be aggressive fact checkers, pushing the candidates when they are straying from the truth. Others find such fact checking to be outside of the moderator’s role, perhaps setting the moderators up for certain failure.
Many agree on one proper behavior for a moderator: grilling for detail and consistency. The 2016 election has largely focused on personal attacks. In the mean time, a discussion of policy detail either gets forgotten or under-reported. Lester Holt’s role in the first presidential debate should be to push both candidates, equally, as to the details of their policies, how they will work with Congress to pass new legislation, how precisely new policies will be implemented, and the goals of given policies. The asymmetry in the fact checkers’ reports on the truthfulness of Clinton’s and Trump’s statements during the campaign should not be obscured with platitudes of false equivalence. To the extent that difference is real, Holt should provide ample opportunities for the candidates to demonstrate it. This will give voters a better understanding of candidates’ positions and the outcomes they seek to achieve. It will help voters understand how thoroughly candidates have considered their ideas as well as their preparedness to take the office.
If Holt is able to nail down Clinton and Trump, demanding they cut the electoral umbilical cord tethering them to infantile talking points and platitudes, his role as moderator will be a success. If Holt lets the candidates speak in vague ways about policy, hijacking the debate to launch meaningless personal attacks, he will seem more like an unprepared babysitter, rather than a presidential debate moderator. Often, everyone’s attention is focused on the performance of the two presidential candidates, but the behaviors and actions of all three individuals on stage are important.
Who talks more vs who is talked about more
In most election cycles, the candidate who dominates the headlines is the one who enjoys an advantage. Like on many counts, the 2016 election has turned concepts of airtime on its head. When Trump is the dominant topic of conversation, Clinton excels. When Clinton dominates headlines, Trump gains an advantage.
During debates, networks clock how much time each candidate speaks, assuming that whoever speaks more has the advantage. This year, however, the focus should be on who is discussed more. Understanding which candidate and which candidate’s policies are the topic of conversation may provide more insight into the advantage. In an election when both candidates have high disapproval ratings, the candidate getting the most attention—either by self or by opponent—may well be the candidate who loses the debate.
Of course, focus must be combined with the lens through which that candidate is being discussed. One candidate may do well discussing himself or herself. This debate might reflect the way in which the rest of this race has gone: defying expectations at every turn. However, as the first debate nears, it is important to consider throwing out the traditional metrics by which we judge presidential debate performances and consider new ones, more fitting for this cycle.
Can Clinton irk Trump?
Candidate temperament has been a central part of the discussion in this cycle. Both candidates face challenges in terms of presentation of self and the approach they take to discussing their own policies and each other. However, Trump runs a real risk Monday night. Away from the TelePrompTer that seems to center him and keep him away from the types of soundbites that cause his campaign headaches, Trump may veer toward more inflammatory rhetoric. That rhetoric worked well for him on a stage with a dozen other GOP primary opponents, but as Americans remain concerned about Trump’s attitude and words, the bombast may hurt him in the general election debates.
Clinton and her team know this, and Team Trump knows it, too. Clinton’s goal, in part, will be to take a subtle approach to getting under Trump’s skin. The hope, for Team Clinton, is to ignite the version of Donald Trump who is divisive, offensive, and lacking polish. That version of Donald Trump does not play as well among undecided voters, independents, and others in the middle. What’s more, those words can be a clarion call to Clinton’s base, helping spur the turnout Brooklyn is so focused on right now.
Trump, for his part, has two effective responses. He can either turn those subtle efforts against Clinton, perhaps pushing her to make an unforced error. Or Trump can rise above the jabs and appear presidential. If he can do either, he will win or at least tie the battle over temperament. On the other hand, if Trump cannot resist or contain himself and lashes out at Clinton in that familiar Trumpian way, it could be disastrous for his efforts to chart a path to 270 electoral votes.
Finding a president who can speak off script
As mentioned above, Trump is at risk when he is away from a tightly controlled script or a closely choreographed event. His off the cuff remarks, often times, get him into trouble, even as his most ardent supporters cheer him on for more. However, Trump is not the only one who can find unscripted moments to be challenging. Yes, Clinton’s gaffes tend not to be as offensive or pointed, but she is prone to mistakes when thinking on her feet. Another risk for Clinton is that her default is to talk deeply and in detail about policy proposals in ways that, though informative, lack the type of inspiration that other, past candidates have been able to muster.
Trump and Clinton have two very different, and almost polar opposite needs when it comes to going off script. Trump needs to control himself and his emotions. He should not say whatever is on his mind, regardless of the consequences. An offensive comment, an off-handed jab at a group of voters or opponents of an issue will put Trump on the receiving end of a left hook from Clinton. He needs to be calm, in control, presidential, and look more like a statesman than a stage actor.
Clinton needs to show the kind of impassioned intelligence that politicians so often struggle to convey.
Clinton needs to show the kind of impassioned intelligence that politicians so often struggle to convey. If she can continue to demonstrate her readiness to take office and her knowledge about the issues, she is halfway to success. If she does so sounding like a college professor or a book on tape, she will motivate few. Instead, she needs to look back at when past Democratic nominees were at their strongest. When President Clinton and President Obama sounded like they were addressing a congregation from a pulpit, they struck the powerful combination: knowledge and enthusiasm. It is that persona that resonates with undecided voters, while simultaneously motivating turnout. To be successful, Secretary Clinton should not take the stage, Pastor Hillary should.
Clinton must testify, not plead the Fifth
Without a doubt, Clinton’s email and server issues will be part of the first and future debates. Whether Lester Holt brings up the topic or Trump ropes the issue into the conversation (or both), Clinton has to be ready. She cannot bobble the answer. She cannot evade the question. She has to be up front, strong, and pointed. She has to take the question head on, without trying to pivot to an attack on Trump. Voters are skeptical of Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness, and the effective response should be “trust me for me” not “trust me more than him.”
Throughout the campaign, Clinton has struggled to respond to these questions effectively. Sometimes she falls short because of the message and other times because of the delivery. There will be no excuse in the presidential debates to be unprepared or unpolished. She knows the questions are coming, and her ability to respond to them in an artful and convincing way could determine how her performance is assessed.
How often will sexism rear its ugly head?
There is no doubt that sexism plays a role in our politics, in our professional lives, and in all corners of our society. The Republican candidate in this race has been hit, repeatedly, for sexist remarks he has made in the past, in the primary, and in the general election. Sexism is not new to American politics, but Donald Trump faces a unique challenge. He will be the first person in American presidential political history to face a woman on stage in a general election debate. That combination is potentially disastrous for Trump. He is a candidate familiar with sexist rhetoric, and he will be participating in a debate at a time when sensitivity to sexism is at an all time high.
All eyes and ears will be focused on how the first female major party nominee for president of the United States is treated on stage.
Clinton has spent a significant portion of the general election season running television advertisements that focus on Trump’s offensive language, including his comments towards women. Media have been focused on his events and rhetoric that diminishes women. Even Clinton supporters have been irate at times when debate moderators seemed to treat male candidates differently than female candidates. (See reaction to Matt Lauer’s performance moderating the recent Commander in Chief Forum.) In fact, many argue that Clinton, as the first female nominee, has been held to different standards or faced certain expectations about voice, tone, and other attributes that a male candidate does not. Those skewed expectations are nothing new, as President Obama has noted that in their 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton was like Ginger Rogers, doing everything he did but “backwards and in heels.”
All eyes and ears will be focused on how the first female major party nominee for president of the United States is treated on stage. Sexist attacks from Trump or gendered treatment form the moderator will not be called out explicitly by Clinton (past debate performances show she carefully lets sexism speak for itself), but surrogates, media, supporters, and even undecideds will be quick to identify such remarks or behaviors, feel sympathy for the target of such sexism, and Clinton could emerge from the debate stronger for having endured it.
On the other hand, if sexism largely stays on the sidelines, if Trump avoids pointed, gendered remarks, and Lester Holt runs a tight ship, it would be a remarkable step forward in American politics, and one any American can applaud. It would mark the first time a woman was on a general election presidential debate stage and her gender had very little to do with the event. In an odd way, sexism may be the biggest story of the night: people will either be shocked when it shows up or floored when it doesn’t.