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The Presidential Debate - The Great American Spectacle






September 26, 2016

Mike Smith: Today Hillary Clinton will face Donald Trump in the most widely anticipated Presidential debate in history.  According to some estimates, more than 100 million Americans are expected to watch the debate – more than 70% of likely voters – an audience second only to the Super Bowl in terms of American viewers this year.  For both campaigns, the forum presents significant opportunities coupled with significant risks.  For Secretary Clinton, the debate provides an important chance to reclaim momentum following two difficult weeks during which much of her post-convention polling lead dwindled. 

Besting the King of Reality TV before a worldwide audience will prove no easy feat, however, and Secretary Clinton faces several specific challenges in that regard.  Foremost, she must overcome the expectations hurdle.  Most viewers expect Secretary Clinton to dominate Mr. Trump in this forum, in part because the Clinton campaign has successfully portrayed him as entirely unfit for the Presidency.  Yet Mr. Trump proved an effective debater during the GOP primaries with a gift for connecting with his audience and delivering memorable moments.  How the Clinton campaign addresses this issue shortly before and after the debate will, in part, help define who won.

For her part, the Secretary should have several specific objectives entering Monday night.  First, she must re-introduce herself to the American people.  The Clinton campaign often describes Secretary Clinton as “the most famous woman in the world that no one knows.”  Their point - every American believes they know Hillary Clinton, yet few know that she has a long record of advocating for children and families or that she played a leading role in establishing the Children’s Health Insurance Program.  She must provide voters a better understanding of her personal and longstanding commitment to the priorities and issues that motivate her campaign.  In simple terms, she must describe what she stands for and who she fights for – ideally with memorable anecdotes. 

Secretary Clinton must also continue to prosecute the case that Mr. Trump is unfit for the office they seek.  But rather than simply state that he is unfit, she must demonstrate the case by offering a sharp contrast on the stage.  After more than two decades in public life, Secretary Clinton has a mastery of policy and an intimate familiarity with world leaders that Mr. Trump simply cannot match.  Where she will dig in to great detail on a range of topics, he is likely to rely on general platitudes – a stark contrast.  She must hold him to account to demonstrate her superior preparedness while also being careful about the manner in which she does so.  Secretary Clinton must avoid interrupting or speaking over Mr. Trump too often, for fear of playing in to certain preconceived notions or biases.  Instead, she should calmly and confidently denounce his fabrications and undercut his misstatements after he speaks. She can invite viewers at home to Google his fabrications, bringing the home audience into the debate to see for ourselves Trump’s fabrications.

The Clinton campaign cannot be certain which Donald Trump it will see on the stage Monday evening – the erratic, shallow billionaire with a hair-trigger temper, the charming and swaggering reality TV star or more likely some combination of both.  In some respects, it may not matter to what Secretary Clinton needs to do.  Secretary Clinton must answer questions directly, candidly and authentically.  In providing in-depth answers to difficult questions, she can demonstrate that she is the more responsible, even-tempered, and trustworthy candidate.  In doing so, she will dispel notions among undecided voters that she is untrustworthy and shift the election back to being a referendum on Mr. Trump and his fitness for office.  As the most disliked candidate in modern history, Mr. Trump cannot win such a referendum.

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Camp Kaufman: The Great American Spectacle that is this year’s Presidential Campaign reaches a crescendo tonight as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump duke it out on the worldwide television stage.  While it is common to see candidates from opposite parties take a bit of a disliking to one another, clearly this year’s race has taken nasty, personal politics to a whole new level.  Viewers should expect more of the same in tonight’s debate.  Look no further than the announcement over the weekend that Billionaire Mark Cuban, who has been outspoken and highly critical of Trump, would be Mrs. Clinton’s special guest at the debate.  Mr. Trump, not to be outdone, invited Gennifer Flowers, the former mistress of Bill Clinton, as his special guest.  Let the fireworks begin.

Who might win and whether debate performance by one or the other of the candidates will move the needle in the polls, is anyone’s guess, but certainly, Mr. Trump has the better opportunity take advantage of the situation.  Mrs. Clinton has been on the public policy stage for many years and therefore has a much higher bar to reach in order to show the American public she should be president.  Mr. Trump on the other hand, not only has no public policy experience, but also seems not to care.  As anyone who has watched the campaign knows, his approach has been to make strong, declarative (sometimes provocative) statements describing what he would do if elected, while providing no details.  That formula worked throughout the Republican primary and currently seems to be gaining traction in the general election.  His performance in the debate tonight will likely mirror that approach.

For Mr. Trump to win the debate, he must do three things:

Surely, Mrs. Clinton will make the argument that Mr. Trump is unfit to be commander in chief, given his sometimes over-the-top statements and his apparent quick temper.  Consequently, she will likely try to bait him and take a couple of shots at him in an effort to elicit an off the cuff response that would make even the most staunch Trump supporter wince.  However, that tactic did not seem to work in the Republican debates, and anyway, that’s the sort of thing that has created his legion of supporters in the first place.  Conversely, Mr. Trump will need to be careful not to get too overbearing and personal in his direct attacks on Mrs. Clinton.  That approach would likely backfire if seen too demeaning or inappropriate.

So with all that in mind grab your popcorn, take a seat on the couch, and get ready to watch the next chapter in the Great American Spectacle – reality TV at its best…or worst.