Most of the commentary I’ve seen about Monday night’s debate focuses on whether Trump will show up hot and angry or be a suddenly polished and articulate Donald Trump we’ve never seen before. There’s also a feverish debate over expectations which posits that if Trump doesn’t kill anyone or find some new extremely sympathetic person to make racist comments about that he’ll win – judged against extremely low expectations. Neither of these ring true to what I’ve seen from the two candidates over the last 18 months or what I glean from the state of the race.
For starters, Trump definitely said some crazy things in the numerous Republican debates. But fairly few of the really damaging things he said in this campaign were in the debates. They tended to be at rallies or in interviews. Put simply, Trump wasn’t as crazy or unhinged in debates as people seem to remember. So if we’re expecting him to come in trash talking and angry I think we may be surprised, at least at first.
For Trump, the bigger problem in a debate setting is the nature of two person debates versus as many as ten on the stage at once. Answers in multi-person debates tend to be short and pointed. Time is in very short supply. Generally you have to fight to get in on a question. There can be back and forth and candidates are sometimes pressed on a given point. But that isn’t the norm. Time is scarce and you can generally just hang back on a question you don’t want to address.
Two person debates have very different dynamics. I think the bigger liability for Trump is what we saw in the national security forum hosted a few weeks ago by NBC News.
Here’s one passage about his secret plan to defeat ISIS …
Here Trump has very little idea what he’s talking about and when pressed on a clear contradiction he starts making up new nonsense to avoid addressing the question. As I said at the time: I think this exchange is pretty obvious for people in a way that transcends politics and ideology. Trump is the kid telling the teacher the dog ate his homework. Then the teacher points out he has no dog. But he’s not going to apologize or come clean. He’s just going to keep talking.
Trump is extremely ignorant when it comes to public policy. George W. Bush had a pretty limited handle on public policy issues too. But either he or his campaign staff (likely both) had some awareness of this fact and kept his answers general and brief. Trump has no such self-awareness and generally just makes things up on the fly. That’s seldom gone over well in non-Fox contexts – not just because he’s ignorant but because it’s usually pretty obvious he’s just making things up.
I do think it’s possible he’ll be goaded into saying something offensive or unhinged. For instance, I think it would be highly advisable for Clinton to confront Trump on birtherism – to press the point that he needs to provide some explanation and apology for why he spread this lie for six years. He’s shown very little indication that he has a good answer to that question. Questions like that, shaming questions, tend to set him off.
Rather than a tirade, the much greater danger for Trump is just the need to explain his policies in anything more than 5 or ten second snippets. This laibility was very clear in the National Security Forum.
Clinton isn’t a greater debater and she’s not known as one. She’s a competent debater who can discuss policy details at almost limitless length. We’ve seen Clinton in literally dozens of debates and townhalls. She won’t make a big factual mistake or do something crazy. It’s not in her character. She definitely won’t snap under pressure. If she can deliver a strong performance which cuts against perceptions that she’s dishonest or out of touch, she may start consolidating generally young NeverTrump voters currently supporting third party candidates. But she doesn’t need to do that. She already has a small but seemingly durable lead. The danger she faces is getting hit on the Clinton Foundation or the emails story and responding in some lawyerly way which gets dissected and then triggers a bunch of new memes or is reasonably and complete and still gets dissected and triggers new memes.
In any case, this is my read on what to expect and the liabilities both candidates face. But I think it’s important to see the whole question in a broader perspective. There is little history of presidential debates playing a clear role in deciding any recent presidential election. More importantly, Clinton has maintained a small but clear lead for months. Trump is the one who needs a game-changing encounter. We can remember the first debate in 2012. President Obama was widely perceived as dramatically underperforming expectations with an unfocused and meandering performance. Romney was aggressive and on-point. It was a shock to the race – judged by elite opinion and poll results. But the shock proved ephemeral.
The key in my mind is this: Trump is the one who needs a game-changing result. You generally do that by taking the initiative and being aggressive. But the biggest factor weighing down his numbers is the widespread belief that he is too emotionally unstable and simply lacks the temperament to be president. That means his ability to do himself any good by going off on Clinton or going after her is very limited.
The more plausible path for Trump is not to go for a knock-out blow but to be calm and measured, stand side by side with Clinton as a plausible chief executive and confound the perceptions that are holding him back. It’s hard for me believe that this won’t at some level be the plan. The challenge for Trump is twofold. First, it’s difficult to really shake things up with what is by definition a low energy strategy. Second, Trump’s inability to answer basic questions about his policy proposals will almost certainly bring out his aggressive and erratic side. At the end of the day it is quite difficult to be other than the people we are. Absent a teleprompter, Trump has shown no ability in eighteen months to be anybody but himself in public. These basic realities are key to bear in mind.
Having said all this, for someone who cares about the outcome in the race, a first presidential debate is always a tense, nail-biting affair. I doubt this will be any different. It is by definition a highly unpredictable, un-controlled setting. Very unpredictable things can happen. But these realities and benchmarks are important to keep in mind.