Last updateFri, 07 Dec 2018 11am

VIEWPOINT: Presidential debates are must-see TV

A record television audience could tune in for the first of the three debates between the U.S. presidential candidates on Monday, September 26. 

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may be the least liked candidates in recent memory but their presence on stage together promises to be box-office dynamite.

Both are prepping furiously behind the scenes for what will be a huge contrast in styles.

Trump is expected to rely on the strength of his personality to carry the day, steering clear of addressing key issues with any kind of gravitas or substance. Clinton will try to highlight the massive gulf in experience between the two, as well as the dangers of having such an unpredictable and erratic man as the standard bearer for the free world.

There are inherent risks in either strategy.  Trump has based his entire campaign on antagonism and is adept at reducing arguments and issues to simplistic slogans and caustic put-downs. Clinton will need to call out Trump on his untruths and absurd postures, but may be unwise to goad her opponent into a slanging match, given her negative “likability” ratings. Some strategists say one way for Clinton to win the debate is to push thin-skinned Trump into “exploding” at some point. A focused and unruffled Trump, however, would be an odds-on favorite to win a rough-and-ready exchange of views. That is absolutely unfair – and somewhat misogynist – but Clinton will need to be aware of the pitfalls of allowing the Republican candidate to get away with snappy, condescending one-liners, even though she may be invoking the more rational argument.  (Remember Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter in 1980.)

But Clinton can score big time if she is able to draw Trump into discussions of policy.  Forcing her opponent to respond to the lack of detail in his proposals may lead him off script to make the kind of gaffe he is so prone to when speaking off the cuff.   

The fluctuating opinion polls during and following the conventions suggest the debate season will have a significant impact on the outcome of the election. With the big prize so close at hand, both candidates may choose to exercise caution in the first encounter and wait to see how the polls react before unleashing any strategic fireworks in the remaining two debates.  On the other hand, if the conventions are any guide, the differences in style may be so apparent that the touch paper is lit from the word go.  One would expect Clinton to focus on the positives for the United States looking forward, to contrast the depressing panorama of the country that Trump has depicted so robustly during his campaign.  Not surprisingly, optimism/fear may be the watchwords of the debates.  

Whether the candidates perform to their expectations could be the defining factor for those “independents” whose votes are so crucial to win an election. Clinton has vast experience in public life and on the debating stage, so she is expected to perform presidentially and gain the intellectual high ground.  That could be enough to triumph over an untried opponent who resorts to type and blusters his way through 90 minutes without the luxury of an autocue.  

Expectations for Trump will be vastly lower, and his advisors may feel that he can win the debate simply by tempering his bombastic instincts, throwing out some well-rehearsed one-liners and roundly beating Clinton in the personality stakes.

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