In what political commentators are already calling the most volatile Presidential election campaign in a lifetime, the final debate tonight is even harder to predict than the tumultuous campaign which preceded it.
In the blue corner, Hillary Clinton will try and do her level best to maintain her focus and read from the script her campaign has worked tirelessly to refine and perfect. Revelations this week of the almost stoic and forced nature of her demeanour on the campaign trail, with rehearsed lines and prepared jokes, will have come as little surprise to any political observer who has followed the textbook political professional throughout her decades long career in the political spotlight from Arkansas to Washington. As I wrote ahead of the first debate, while the expectation level for Clinton is disproportionately high, she has displayed the level headedness required to not rise to the kind of goading from her opponent that could throw her off course.
In the preceding debates she has benefited from standing opposite an incredibly punchy performer, but one who veers too easily off the script. Clinton is eminently beatable in this election, and her weaknesses – emails, Benghazi and Bill – are there to be exploited. For that reason, it comes as little surprise that in the latest set of emails hacked by Wikileaks, the Clinton campaign were seen to be favouring Trump as an opponent. Political pros like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would have without doubt identified those weaknesses and probed them with military precision, in a way that Trump has proven incapable of doing owing to his preference for the controversial.
In the red corner, Donald Trump looks more focused and targeted than at any point in the campaign. It may be that, on reflection, all it ever took for Trump to fix his sight and not blink was the right target.
In an extraordinary two weeks, the Republican nominee for President has changed focus almost entirely, from defeat Hillary Clinton and winning the White House to defeating Paul Ryan’s establishment wing of the Republican Party and winning the de facto right to direct the future of the party. A series of typically Trumpian tweets have revealed the contempt with which the candidate holds House Speaker Ryan, the highest elected Republican in the United States.
A change of target has brought about a change of strategy. Whilst some of the media messaging has remained on ‘Crooked Hillary’, Trump has pivoted more heavily towards the notion of a rigged election. (Ignore the fact that Presidential elections are conducted state-by-state, and the chief election officers are Republicans in dozens of states including Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Utah). Initially distancing himself from that sentiment saying, “We will absolutely respect the result of the election”, Vice Presidential running mate Governor Mike Pence has since mooted the possibility of widespread voter fraud. Whilst Trump’s accusation is truly wild, at least Pence’s has been a preserve of the GOP for some decades.
In a binary world defined by winners and losers, it appears Trump is preparing himself for the unthinkable – losing. Besides voter fraud and a fixed system, how else could a man who has defined his career by winning possibly be defeated? In the final debate then, Trump’s focus could well shift to the question moderate republicans will desperately fear the answer to – what next? Under the stewardship of Stephen Bannon, CEO of Breitbart, the ammunition of choice preferred by many Trump backers on the right, the candidate has shown his even more hawkish side, openly firing shots in the direction of House and Senate Republicans. Having at least turned the Tea Party wing down from a boiling rage to a light simmer, reducing firebrand Ted Cruz to little more than a statistical anomaly in the primaries, established Republicans might now face the lurking presence of the Trump TV network.
How will two very differing aims shape the final debate tonight? Hillary Clinton is unlikely to deviate too far from the course she has laid out previously. Heavy on policy detail but with an unmistaken difficulty of articulating exactly what that is, she will bide her time knowing an avalanche of allegations have been gifted to her since the candidates last faced off. Trump’s course of action remains much more of a question mark – despite newly focusing on Paul Ryan and a future without the keys to the White House, he will still not give up without a fight. British observers will remember the mistaken confidence with which they went into the Brexit referendum in July. On the contrary, we will get to see what Donald Trump is like now that the shackles have been removed.