On Monday, Hofstra University will host the first of this year’s three presidential debates. Since 1992, the Commission on Presidential Debates has held three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. It is unclear how much impact the debates actually have on the general election. While candidates who do “better” in a debate tend to have a bounce in the polls, that bounce tends to be temporary.
In most election cycles, a large number of voters are not that familiar with the candidates (particularly those who are running for President for the first time). For swing voters, the debates (and the post-debate coverage of the “highlights”) can either confirm the negatives or the positives associated with a candidate. This year, the two candidates are probably better known than in most cycles (or at least the names are more familiar). As such, it seems likely that it will be much more difficult for either candidate to change how voters see them. However, the candidates will still try.
For Secretary Clinton, the big positive is that most people thinks that she is knowledgeable about the issues. The big negatives are that she is tainted with the Clinton legacy of trying to play things close to the vest and only letting out half-truths as she deems necessary. She also is not particularly charismatic.
On the positive side, the big goal for Secretary Clinton is to explain what she proposes to do and why the U.S. has done better under Democratic policies. A lot of people have strong reasons for voting against Donald Trump, but they are less convinced of the need to vote for Secretary Clinton. While none of the third party candidates are doing well enough to make the debates, there are still a substantial number of people voting for third party candidates because they do not have a reason to vote for Secretary Clinton.
As far as undermining Donald Trump, the question is which Donald Trump will show up. During the Republican debates, Trump tended to have a very thin skin. He also did very poorly when confronted about details.
For Trump, the goals for the debate are to appear presidential and knowledgeable. The problem for Trump is that he is neither. His advisors and speechwriters are busy preparing responses for him that sound good but say nothing. If he can get away with non-responses and does not start to ad lib, he could actually succeed.
To date during this campaign, Trump has created a conundrum — both for Democrats and for the media. Trump has repeatedly boldly put forth assertions of facts that are completely and totally false. While it’s normal for candidates to spin studies and statistics in a favorable light, Trump claims to be aware of events that never happened and has a tendency to spout conspiracy theories from the far right. When Trump does this during the debates, the question is whether the moderators treat Trump’s comments as normal (as the Trump campaign wants) putting his falsehoods on the same level as Clinton’s corrections or do the moderators call him on it and make him give some source for his beliefs (as the Clinton campaign wants). Simply put, what makes Trump so scary is that it is impossible to tell if he is intentionally misstating the facts to feed his base’s separation from reality or if he is actually clueless about what is really going on in the real world. Both alternatives are dangerous, but they are dangerous in different ways if he wins.
If the moderators decide that fact-checking is not part of their job description, it is going to fall to us posting on social media and stories about the debate to call Trump on his falsehoods. It is hard to turn on the news without seeing an issue on which the Republicans do not want to discuss the facts — whether it is the tense relationship between law enforcement and communities, the aggressive behavior of Vladimir Putin, the success of Obamacare in reducing the number of uninsured, the fact that Trump’s proposals would dramatically increase the debt, the fact that either Trump is vastly overestimating the number of illegal immigrants and refugees or is vastly overstating the risk posed by such immigrants (or both), etc. We have the right message but only if the debate occurs in the real world, not the mythical never, never land where Trump pretends that he is an ethical businessman and there was some perfect U.S. back in the 1950s.