Debate is Trump's big opportunity
© Getty

On Monday, the most crucial political event between now and Election Day — the first presidential debate — will be only a week away.

The first clash between Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Democratic super PAC to hit Trump in battleground states over coronavirus deaths Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE is expected to shatter ratings records. Some experts are suggesting that 100 million people could watch the encounter, which will take place at Hofstra University, just outside New York City. Debates usually attract between 60 and 70 million viewers. 


Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, who has worked at a high level on several presidential campaigns, said he expects the first debate to be the biggest TV event “since the moon landing.” 

For the candidates, the stakes will be as enormous as the audience.

Clinton has seen her once-comfortable lead in opinion polls almost entirely eroded. The Democrat’s numbers have declined after her near-collapse due to pneumonia at a Sept. 11 commemoration in Manhattan.

Trump, meanwhile, still trails in several key battleground states and polls show that a large swath of the population harbors grave doubts about his ability to serve as commander in chief.

That means that each candidate faces quite different challenges.

Shrum suggested that, for Clinton, one big question would be whether she could warm up her image with voters.

“The opportunity for her is to let people see her as she is,” he said. “She can be a very appealing person, but at times that hasn’t come across. The work that was done at the convention sort of got lost in the month of August because of the deluge of Trump stories.” 

For Trump, the issue is more about trying to persuade viewers that he is an acceptable choice as president. Emerging from the encounter unscathed would “be a victory, a massive victory,” according to GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “He doesn’t necessarily have to be better than Hillary, he just has to be plausible as a commander-in-chief.”

O’Connell’s analysis points to something on which experts of all political persuasions agree: Expectations will be lower for Trump than they are for Clinton. 

The Manhattan real estate magnate has never run for political office before and is often portrayed by his critics as a buffoon. Clinton, by contrast, has been at the center of public life for a quarter century. She has two Senate races as well as her previous run for the presidency in 2008 under her belt, along with her years as first lady and secretary of State.

The low expectations could be useful for Trump, allowing him to paint anything other than an outright disaster as a victory.  

During the Republican primary process, aides to Trump’s more polished rivals expected that he would implode, sooner or later, on the debate stage. In fact, he never seriously faltered despite his propensity for deriding opponents with nicknames, getting into verbal tussles and, on one occasion, defending the size of his genitalia against innuendoes from a rival, Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Florida senators pushing to keep Daylight Savings Time during pandemic Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts Chinese, Malaysian hackers accused of targeting over 100 organizations | GOP senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal | QAnon awareness jumps in new poll MORE.  

Trump also displayed different demeanors at different times of the Republican primary debate season — something that could make Clinton’s preparations for their three debates more complicated. Shrum said she would have to rehearse for “Mild Trump, Wild Trump — or some combination of the two, which I think is the most likely.”  

After the first clash on Sep. 26, the two other debates are set for St. Louis on Oct. 9 and Las Vegas on Oct. 19.

Trump has frequently been a subject of media derision with his bombastic performances, but O’Connell noted that the importance of that criticism could be exaggerated. 

“It’s about communicating with the audience,” he said. “Sometimes he may say some things that sound jarring to reporters and policy wonks, and to the audience they may not. That’s one of the things that is important in judging debates — you have to keep an eye on the audience.”

Another concern for the candidates is that all the preparation in the world can be undone by an unexpected development.

In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney was knocked off his stride during a debate with President Obama when moderator Candy Crowley asserted that he had mischaracterized Obama's response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. In 2000, Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreCruz says Senate Republicans likely have votes to confirm Trump Supreme Court nominee 4 inconclusive Electoral College results that challenged our democracy Fox's Napolitano: 2000 election will look like 'child's play' compared to 2020 legal battles MORE's sighing during his first debate with then-Gov. George W. Bush was the focus of discussion in the days that followed.

Clinton and Trump can perhaps draw some comfort from the fact that the last momentous gaffe in a presidential debate came a generation ago, when then-President Gerald Ford made the head-scratching assertion in 1976 that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

On the upside, it is not all that difficult for campaigns to prepare memorable lines to parry expected attacks from either opponents or moderators. A classic example came in 1984, when President Ronald Reagan artfully deflected concerns about his age with his statement that "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." His Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, was 56 at the time and a former vice president.

Those are the kinds of moments that Shrum believes matter much more to debate success than filling the candidate's brain with policy minutia.

Candidates, he said, "cram so much into their head that they really aren't prepared to treat the debate as an exercise in narrative. But you have to."

Clinton and Trump will also know as they take the stage that first impressions matter. The first debate typically attracts the biggest audience and sets the tone for much of what follows.

Aaron Kall, a debate coach at the University of Michigan and the editor of a new academic study of the GOP debates during this election cycle, put it simply: "The first one is always the most important, in terms of risk and reward."