The Presidential debate season is nearly upon us. Fortune usually favours the brave, but in this case it may favour the outspoken.
Tonight, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will go face to face at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, quite possibly for the first time since the former Secretary of State “happened to be in Florida” at the businessman’s wedding in 2005. NBC news anchor Lester Holt will moderate a Presidential debate for the first time, framing the conversation under three topics: “America’s Direction”, “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America”. Those three themes largely fit in with what Americans want to hear about in the debates, according to polling by Pew Research Center.
The format and rules have been pre-determined by the Commission on Presidential Debates. (The independence of the commission has not stopped Donald Trump from preemptively alleging malpractice, naturally). There are six sections, each 15 minutes long, which will begin with a question from Lester Holt. Both candidates will then be allowed two minutes for answers, and then follow-ups and responses.
For many Americans, this will be the first opportunity to see the two candidates in action. The Presidential race has been in full swing for many of us in the political bubbles of Westminster, Washington and New York since last year, but the voting American public traditionally kicks into campaign mode after the Labor Day weekend, once the leaves have started to brown.
Live debates are a high stakes gamble for any political candidate, in which the traditional media shield of press teams and communications experts is dropped, and weaknesses are nakedly exposed to the watching nation. The pitfalls are, in theory at least, equal for both candidates. But could the live format favour Mr Trump over Mrs Clinton?
The data suggests Clinton may stand in narrowly better stead, contrary to a general assumption that a heightened sense of panic around national security will embolden Trump.
– In a Fox News poll last week among likely voters, Clinton edged Trump by 1% in answer to the question who would do a better job handling terrorism and national security.
– In a Quinnipiac University poll last week, 49% of likely voters said Clinton would be better at “keeping the country safe from terrorism”, 2 points ahead of Trump.
– In an ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier in September, Clinton led Trump by 3 points amongst registered voters when asked who they trust more on terrorism.
In an already highly emotive Presidential race, the intensity of the live debates between two already divisive figures is almost guaranteed to result in some strong reactions amongst voters. While the data can forecast the political temperature in America, it cannot predict how the bruising, brash style of Trump might shape the discourse, compared to the calm and collected approach of Clinton. Trump’s ability to skirt the issues of the day and focus on fiction instead of fact has been one of his strategic strengths on the campaign trail thus far. An open question mark hovers over Clinton and Lester Holt in equal measure over whether or not they can reign in Trump and keep him stuck on the issues. Aware of his strengths – and his weaknesses – Trump will seek to play on the emotions of a wary America, building on the approach of Republican firebrand Newt Gingrich:
“As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.”
Owing to his campaign performance since securing his party’s nomination, the qualification bar is much lower than it is for Clinton. From the outset, Trump’s run for the White House has been plagued with blunders, allegations of campaign impropriety and almost daily controversies. Little is expected of him beyond a big and bold performance. If Trump brings his signature style and scores some easy points against a candidate who the American public largely neither likes nor trusts, perception will be good. Americans will be surprised if Trump does what they would expect of any ‘normal’ candidate; that shifts the odds heavily in his favour. Trump’s weaknesses thus far might therefore be his strength.
For Trump then, winning the debate does not mean scoring highly on the issues and outlining an optimistic vision of America with the Celebrity Apprentice host taking residence in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For Trump, success on the night is simply looking like a statesman and not saying anything outrageous to or about Clinton or Holt.
Donald Trump finds himself in a similar position to Ed Miliband in the run up to the 2015 General Election. The British public expected so little of the ex-Labour leader that his otherwise average performances felt like a tangible success. So long as Trump navigates the first debate gaffe free, expect his campaign spinners to spend heavily on ads focusing on his fitness and capability to occupy the White House, two of his hitherto biggest weaknesses.
Much more is expected from Hillary Clinton, a Washington stalwart who has been on the national and global stage almost all her adult life and in that time developed a famously forensic level of intelligence on policy. She is vulnerable to attack on two of the three main issues – America’s direction and prosperity – where she will need to work hard to differentiate her policies from President Obama’s. It is for that very reason that the party in power has only won a third term in the White House once since World War II.
For Clinton then, simply turning in a decent performance is not enough. She will need to be more competent, composed and reassuring on the issues than her opponent, from whom little is expected. Rest assured her level of preparation will surpass Trump’s. But for Clinton to succeed and win over crucial swing voters on the night, she will need to display much more than just competence. Clinton’s weakness is her lack of trustworthiness and the cold hard fact that, despite decades in public life, Americans just don’t like her all that much. Getting the public to like you and trust you in just 90 minutes is a near impossible task. And for that reason, in the first debate at least, the variant levels of expectation, combined with Trump’s style, may be more than enough to overcome Clinton’s substance.