What’s At Stake In the First Debate

The eve of the first debate of the Election From Hell is now upon us, and for all of pundits’ chatter about Donald Trump’s unpredictability, I’m actually highly confident in Hillary Clinton’s ability to accomplish what she needs to accomplish. Her greatest strength in this election has always been the widespread public perception that she and not Trump is actually capable of performing the daily duties of the presidency — in a word: temperament, the topic of her very first general election speech. Clinton’s entire career has prepared her for this moment: nobody is going to have any question by the end of Monday night about which of the two nominees has a greater mastery of policy and the demands of governance. And let us remember, too, that it is one thing for voters to consider this question in the abstract — and quite another to examine the two candidates side-by-side in an exchange about ‘the issues’ over the course of 90 minutes.


I anticipate that Trump’s lack of familiarity with the format will be fatal to his ability to gain the upper-hand. Clinton will be eager to exploit the lessons she’s learned from her experience debating one-on-one against President Obama and Senator Sanders. There is simply no way for Trump to BS his way through this kind of event. During the brawls of the Republican primary, he could fall back on his skills as an entertainer when his answers became muddled or rambling — but in this format, he will not be able to spar directly with either Clinton or the moderator, he cannot appeal to the audience with applause lines or insults, and his limited attention span will surely lead him to go on tangential spiels more than once. Expectations for Trump are rock-bottom, yes — but it’s still more than possible to imagine him imploding in front of nearly 100 million people. All it takes is one moment.

In the end, Trump’s best hope is probably to pull a Palin: if he can make it through the debate without tripping all over himself, that will be treated as a kind of win, even though Clinton is nearly certain to be judged the overall winner of the night, just as Joe Biden was in 2008. Biden was boring and dry, too — and Palin crossed the very low bar set for her. But even though Palin received some salutary compliments, both public opinion polls and news coverage declared Biden the undisputed winner. And although it is easy to imagine Trump imploding, it is also easy to imagine his animal drive to win concentrating his mind to the extent that he can make it through the occasion sounding — and acting — presentable, if not exactly ‘presidential.’

How much is really at stake in the debates, though? The conventional wisdom about ideological polarization is mostly true, and these nominees have universal name ID and have been a major part of American public life for the last three decades. Clinton’s advertising money has mostly gone to waste, judging by recent polls (although one could argue it helped prevent a slide). So where can the needle be moved? The remaining undecideds are mostly young progressives and moderate Republicans considering voting out-of-step from their usual patterns. Clinton has the potential to gain from both groups; Trump, only the latter. But it’s easy to imagine Hillary trying to appeal to both and ultimately appealing to neither. So to the extent that either of the candidates will try to tailor their messages to undecideds in particular rather than to a general audience, Clinton has a more difficult tightrope act — but also more of an opportunity to gain. On the other hand, to the extent that the election will be a test of which of the parties can better mobilize their base, Clinton has an easier task: just as Trump’s debate expectations are low enough that he can achieve a victory of sorts, Clinton is so chronically tagged with the reputation being boring, ‘unlikable,’ and aloof, that even momentary flashes of humor, candidness, and self-awareness could be enough to ‘humanize’ her once again and excite her base at a critical moment.

The bottom line is this: Hillary had a spectacularly horrible September, Trump’s got all the momentum — and we are still on track for a solid Clinton victory. Really, Clinton only needs to survive this debate, but yet has the opportunity to thrive. But Trump has to thrive; he has to prove he can address the issues he’s raised in a longer format, with details, in a formal setting. Nobody really knows whether he can do it — least of all Trump himself. We are all about to find out, with the world watching.