After Donald Trump’s clear loss in the First Presidential debate two weeks ago and the week that followed for his campaign, tonight’s Presidential debate was always set to be a fiery one. But with the recent release of audio of Trump making lewd and derogatory comments about women during an appearance on Access Hollywood in 2005, tonight’s debate is set to be even more bad tempered than originally expected.
After the release of the tape, what seemed like a constant succession of senior Republicans rushed to condemn Trump’s comments, with many going as far as withdrawing their endorsement. Leader of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan said he was “sickened” by what he had heard, and called off a scheduled joint campaign appearance in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the comments, “repugnant, and unacceptable in any circumstance,” and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney (who had already said that he would not be supporting Trump) said that Trump’s comments “corrupt” America’s image to the world.
Add to this the list of Republican luminaries who announced one by one that they were withdrawing their support for Trump: John McCain, Rob Portman, Condoleeza Rice, Kelly Ayotte, and Mike Crapo to name just a few. Given that so many of these individuals gave their support so reluctantly in the first place, perhaps this was just the kind of incident they were looking for — something to given them an excuse to eject themselves from the trainwreck that Trump’s campaign has become.
Tonight’s debate is realistically the final opportunity Trump has to stay in with a chance in this Presidential race. If he is unable to at least prove to some of the doubters in his own party that he is fit to be President, then he stands no chance of winning in November.
To have any chance of doing this, Trump has to act as Presidential as it is possible to act.
Following his loss in the first Presidential debate, it was widely expected that in the second debate, Trump would look to bring up Bill Clinton’s martial infidelities (and Hillary’s defence of them) as one of his key criticisms. However, after what we heard Trump say earlier this week, he has surely forfeited his right to do this.
Nonetheless, as a man of unlimited self-confidence, expect Trump to go big (sorry, I mean bigly) on Bill Clinton’s infidelities, and for him to completely miss the irony. Indeed he began this assault during the non-apology he gave on Friday, when he said:
“I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”
It is perhaps this comment which shows us exactly what we can expect in tonight’s debate. Rather than any real admittance on fault on his part, Trump will do all he can to claim Clinton is worse. Naturally she will return fire, which will make for the bloodiest debate in Presidential election history.
It is hard to see how bringing up Bill Clinton’s infidelities will help Trump. Yes, there is an argument that it will persuade some people that Trump’s 2005 comments aren’t as bad as the reaction has suggested. But, given the sheer vulgarity of what he did say, it is hard to see how this would be possible. Rather than implying that Clinton is unfit for the Presidency, is bringing up her husband’s indiscretions not more likely to stoke sympathy for Hillary Clinton? Not to mention that it has been suggested that the electorate has no desire to hear more about Bill Clinton’s infidelities. In recent polling by Politico, it was found that 56 percent of voters felt that it would be inappropriate for Trump to bring this up during the debate, with only 33 percent feeling it was appropriate. Therefore, Trump’s most likely strategy seems misguided.
Trump’s task is further complicated by the ‘town-hall’ format of tonight’s debate, a format which Trump has little experience in.
Trump’s best moments on the campaign trail have come at his mass rallies, where he is alone on the mic in front of a huge group of adoring fans. When Trump has to interact with others, he tends to find things more difficult. We saw this in the first debate, where Trump couldn’t help but respond to Clinton’s baiting, with this leading to lengthy parts of the debate spent on damaging topics such as Trump’s ‘birther’ theory. Don’t expect this part of Trump’s personality to change anytime soon but, in a town hall debate it could prove far more costly. With the audience asking the questions, who would bet against Trump taking issue with a difficult question asked by an undecided voter? One of the key skills required in a town hall debate is the ability to respect the voter by listening to the question and actually answering it. This is something that Trump has typically found difficult, with his tendency to ignore the question and digress into a monologue about his brilliance, and his tendency to react angrily when faced with criticisms. This is something that he cannot afford tonight. But, given his always limited debate prep, which can’t have been made any easier by this week’s crisis, don’t expect him to have comprehensively fixed these flaws, Trump’s biggest failure may yet be the belief that he has no flaws.
All Clinton needs to do tonight is control the debate. If Trump behaves as expected (i.e in exactly the same way as he has throughout the campaign), then he will dig his own holes, and with tonight’s town hall format all Clinton needs to do is watch as the audience push him down them.