Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are set to face off for the first time onstage Monday night (Tuesday morning in Australia) in front of what’s expected to be perhaps the largest television debate audience of all time — all at a moment when the presidential race is tighter than ever.
For 90 uninterrupted minutes on a stage in Hempstead, NY, the two candidates will debate issues of national security and the state of the American economy in a debate simulcast on multiple television networks, as well as social-media sites including Facebook and Twitter.
The program is widely expected to eclipse the past debate record — 80 million tuned in to watch former President Jimmy Carter take on then-former California Gov. Ronald Reagan — and close in on the highest-rated television event of the year: the Super Bowl.
It could hardly come at a more crucial time for either candidate. With a record number of voters expressing negative sentiments about both candidates, some observers argue that the candidate able to put voters’ concerns at ease with a memorable line may be able to come out on top.
Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and president of the Potomac Strategy Group, said that the debate will be won by the candidate who is able to best parlay barbs and address their own shortcomings issues head on.
“On a macro-level, it’s going to be — does Trump address his weaknesses, does she address hers?” Mackowiak said. “Both of them are going to try to deflect away from their weaknesses on to the other person.”
‘She’s got to tell people what she wants to do’
For her part, Clinton has been preparing for the debate for months.
Hunkering down with top campaign officials, the former secretary of state has reviewed briefing books on Trump’s past statements and business dealings and studied briefings on his psychology and the way he’s reacted in past debates.
She also has reportedly prepared strategies to face off against either a subdued Trump attempting to legitimise himself to voters on the fence — or a ferocious and aggressive Trump who belittled and interrupted opponents onstage during Republican primary debates.
Clinton has also reportedly scheduled a full mock debate, a tedious process that can eat away at precious preparation time and often leaves candidates drained. The New York Times reported last week that Clinton aide Philippe Reines would play Trump, signalling to many observers that she was hoping to prepare against someone who was not afraid to go after her personal weaknesses during debate prep.
“Well, look, I think she has to talk directly to the American people about what she wants to do,” Clinton campaign chair John Podesta said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
“You know, I think when you think about what’s honest about her, it’s that from the day she got, left law school, she has been a champion for women, for children, for families,” he added. “She’s done it all her life. She’s gotten real results for people. In contrast, Donald Trump’s been all about himself. But she’s got to tell people what she wants to do for them.”
‘Trump’s got a lower bar to get over’
For his part, Trump’s preparation has reportedly taken on a much different shape.
He has apparently largely rebuffed attempts to nail down concrete one-liners and invest hours into pouring over debate preparation books, saying that he wants to appear authentic and unscripted. The Times reported that Trump has opted against selecting one person to play his opponent in mock debates, a customary political ritual. And many early debate-preparation sessions ended without much progress.
Still, Trump has also espoused the value of being unpredictable and could take a steadier approach that would defy some expectations.
Politico reported that Trump was retaining conservative polling firm Cambridge Analytica to study Clinton’s past debate performances and create a psychological profile based on their famed “psychographics” technique, which attempts to target specific groups of voters based on their psychological profiles.
“Trump’s got a lower bar to get over than Hillary does,” Mackowiak said. “On the other hand, she’s been preparing and he hasn’t.”
Most observers agree the debate could easily set the tone for the next several weeks of campaigning — or at least until they meet again on October 9.
Polls show the real-estate magnate closing in on Clinton in key swing states. According to the RealClearPolitics average of recent reputable polls, Trump currently leads Clinton in key battleground states including Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, and North Carolina, among others.
If history is a precedent, a debate win for either candidate could help boost them in the polls. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cut into President Barack Obama’s lead in 2012 after the president delivered a widely panned performance during the first debate.
And many past campaigns have blamed losses on the debates themselves.
Some advisers to former Vice President Al Gore point to his barely concealed contempt for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush during the first debate as the vice president’s undoing in the general election. Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ response to a question about his position on the death penalty, which some viewed as insensitive, was largely seen as a nail in the coffin in his campaign against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
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