By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
The broad topics have been announced, setting up the final countdown to what promises to be the biggest event in this presidential election cycle: the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on September 26.
For both candidates, the debate will be the single most important moment in their careers to date, and it could well have a major impact on the eventual outcome of the presidential election, so it’s worth considering why that is, and what to look out for.
Presidential debates have a history as some of the most-watched TV broadcasts, reaching about 40% of households in the United States in 2012, which was about 67 milllion viewers for the first debate. This year, the first debate is expected to significantly exceed that number, perhaps even reaching Super Bowl levels with up to 100 million viewers.
With social media videos and online streaming now firmly established as having massive reach, we can also expect millions of additional views of the debate and its various moments. Though it will be tricky to measure exactly because of the sheer number of clips that will be online, what is clear is that, in one form or another, this debate will be one of the most viewed events ever.
WHO DO THE CANDIDATES NEED TO WIN OVER?
For both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the stakes are high. While much of the post-debate analysis will focus on who “won” the debate – primarily decided in relation to the expectations set beforehand, and their performance on stage – the big question for both candidates is how their performance actually gets them closer to winning the election.
In that respect, what matters will not just be whether the candidates gain or lose overall, but with whom they gain or lose. The three broad groups that are most important for them to make a difference with are suburban women, white men who do not have a college education, and voters under the age of 35.
Younger voters have been a particular problem for Hillary Clinton, since they were an important part of the coalition that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. But in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters in Florida, 25% of those aged 18-34 said they would vote for third party candidates.
Helped by the fact that neither Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, nor Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, are on the ballot, Clinton will have to make a particular effort to reach out to this age group on the debate stage to shore up their support, which can make a big difference if they turn out in sufficient numbers.
Meanwhile, Trump is doing much worse than previous Republican candidates with suburban women. In an August Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, only 28% of suburban women polled said they have a positive view of Trump. This resulted in a lead of 47% to 40% by Clinton over Trump with suburban women which is a serious problem for Donald Trump. He will have to be careful not to come off as condescending and overly aggressive against Clinton, and also not to fall into a trap like the one set for him by Chris Matthews on the question of abortion earlier this year.
Lastly, Trump’s biggest strength is among white men without a college education, many of whom have supported Democrats in the past but could switch sides this time. This group is especially important in the rust belt states of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
We can expect Trump to try to make inroads with this group by hitting Clinton hard on issues where he has portrayed her as not having their backs, such as her record on trade deals, claiming that she is weak on terrorism, and emphasizing her stance on immigration. Clinton, in turn, can counter by portraying Trump as being only out for himself and pointing out his long record of lawsuits and labor violations, as well as his tax proposals that would disproportionately favor the wealthy.
THE FORMAT MATTERS
This debate will be one on one between the two candidates, moderated by Lester Holt of NBC at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. The debate will be 90 minutes long and consist of six segments of 15 minutes each. The broad topics will be America’s Direction, Achieving Prosperity, and Securing America, each of which will fill two of the six segments.
This is a very different format from the one in which Trump repeatedly did well during the Republican primaries. During those debates the stage was crowded, and all the other candidates were frequently focused on each other. But this time around Trump cannot evade being in focus. On the one hand that elevates him, but it also means that he can’t dodge difficult questions.
The format places high demands on each candidate since they have significantly more time they need to fill, and will be subject to more follow ups and counter points. With a silent audience that has been asked not to applaud, there will also be no audience feedback for the candidates to use as a gauge of their performance while they are speaking.
Clinton is a veteran of one on one debates, having done them several times already during the primary against Bernie Sanders, and in 2008 against Barack Obama, as well as during her candidacies for the United States Senate in 2000 and 2006. She has a rock-solid record of remaining calm under pressure, and consistently performing well.
Trump, on the other hand, has never been tested under these conditions. But that should not be a reason to underestimate him, because he does have experience with the showmanship of television and he used the primary debates to steamroll his opponents, eventually building up to become unstoppable in his quest for the Republican nomination.
How well the candidates are prepared, and how they choose to engage with one another in this difficult format will decide who wins the day, so in the end we may just find out what happens when an unstoppable force finally meets an immovable object.