It’s finally arrived, the final debate in this marathon Presidential campaign.
With Donald Trump having lost a lot of ground in the race to the White House, polling suggests that Hillary Clinton has a national lead of around six percent, Trump certainly has a lot to do in this debate.
Expect Trump to go on the attack from the beginning, in an attempt to make up some of this ground. It would be no surprise to see Trump continue his claims that the election is being rigged against him by the media. Given that this debate is being moderated by Chris Wallace from FOX News, it is perhaps less likely that Trump calls the moderation biased than he did in previous debates. However, Wallace is a registered Democrat (although he says that this is just so he can vote in the primaries) and he did say earlier this year that he felt the media weren’t hard enough on Donald Trump.Therefore, if Trump feels that he’s losing the momentum, don’t be overly surprised if he decides to claim that everyone is ganging up on him, as did in the first debate when he suggested that it was “three against one”, with Clinton, and moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz all ganging up against him. A repeat of a similar scene would not be unexpected.
In addition, with the continual dumping of John Podesta’s hacked emails by Wikileaks, expect information gleaned from these to make up a large proportion of Trump’s attacks. The emails which suggested Clinton knew CNN debate question in advance during the Democratic Primary feed into his rigged election narrative. In addition, the revelation that the government of Qatar (who have a sketchy human rights record) had donated $1 million to the Clinton Foundation could prove slightly embarrassing to Clinton. Trump claims that these emails have been completely ignored by the media. He is wrong. The media have reported them, and in normal times they would be front page news. However, the recording of Trump’s derogatory remarks on the set of Access Hollywood in 2005, and other reports of sexual misconduct, have drowned out the stories about Clinton. This means that this final debate is the only chance Trump will have to confront Clinton about these allegations.
One thing notable about this debate, is that a full fifteen minute section will be devoted to the topic of immigration. It was surprising how little immigration was discussed during the previous two debates, and it was quite surprising that Trump didn’t look to steer the conversation towards one of his stronger topics. This debate will give Trump the opportunity to talk about one of his keynote policies: the wall on the US-Mexico border. Of course, this debate also gives an opportunity for this policy to be properly scrutinised. It seems pretty obvious that building a wall on the whole border is completely unrealistic. For a start, we’re talking about a full-blown wall, not just a fence. This means that the cost will be completely exorbitant, with it having been estimated that costs could rise at high at $25 billion. In addition, the wall would have to cover a border which is almost 1,900 miles long. Much of this land isn’t owned by the US Government, which would push the cost even higher. All in all, the policy of building a wall on the US-Mexico border is completely unrealistic. This perhaps explains Trump’s reluctance to bring it up in a debate, as he realises that it would be picked apart by Clinton and the moderators. Nonetheless, it seems likely that this debate will force him to discuss it. Whilst the issue will likely further energise his base, it seems unlikely to be one which will gain him any undecided voters. I mean, if you wanted a wall on the US-Mexico border, then surely you’d be supporting Trump already?
These undecided voters, are who Trump chiefly needs to target in this debate. With polling suggesting he is six points behind Clinton, and this being the final televised debate, he is rapidly running out of opportunities to appeal to undecided voters. This is where a debate strategy that involves continuous attacks on Clinton could fall flat. Undecided voters are tired of hearing about this. Instead, they want to hear about policy. With debate topics including: debt and entitlements, the economy, and foreign hot spots; both candidates have a chance to show off their policy ideas, in an attempt to woo some of these undecided voters. If Trump’s policy knowledge is as lacking as it was in the first debate, then he could well seriously struggle with this.
As well as appealing to swing voters, Trump needs to try and persuade the traditional GOP supporters, who are deserting him in droves, to vote for him in November. Polling currently suggests that traditionally safe Republican states such as Arizona, Georgia, Utah, and even Texas, are now considered toss-ups. It is the polling from Texas which will have most alarmed the Trump campaign. Although, there is a growing Hispanic population in Texas, it was still considered to be safe. Indeed, just one month ago Trump had a lead of eleven points in Texas, but this has now fallen to just four points, which is within the margin of error. Trump needs to be clear on his commitment to traditional Republican policies, otherwise he risks losing these kind of states. Given that he is already up against it in the swing states, losing perceived ‘safe’ states would be disastrous.
Equally, Trump has to ensure he appeals to those in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa. All in all, this means that Trump has to carry out an unenviable balancing act, to try and keep voters from many very different constituencies on side.
Given these competing priorities, it would be no surprise to simply see Trump fall back on his usual tactic of insulting the competition, but not actually offering much substance. He has already announced the slightly baffling news that he has invited President Obama’s half-brother, Malik Obama, to attend the debate. Malik has previously said that he supports Trump, but this invite feels just like a publicity stunt, much the same as when Trump invited Bill Clinton’s accusers to the last presidential debate. The stunt didn’t have an impact then, and it isn’t going to work now. Trump has a misguided knack of attacking people who aren’t on the ballot, at the last debate it was Bill Clinton, throughout the past week it has been Paul Ryan, and at this one it looks as though it will be Barack Obama. This isn’t going to do anything to help Trump in this election, and seems totally unnecessary.
Overall, this debate gives Trump one final chance to appeal to undecided voters in the swing states. This is the most important thing for his campaign, and is absolutely what he should be focusing on. However, things like inviting Malik Obama to the debate suggests that Trump is going to fall back on his strategy of getting the odd good soundbite. This hasn’t worked so far as a way of persuading swing voters to back him, therefore there seems no reason that it will work now. For populist actions like this, Trump can use his mass rallies to energise his base. There seems little point in using the final presidential debate to do what he can do in fifteen minutes at one of his mass rallies. Instead he must use his debate to put forward some substantial policy, or his chances in this election are numbered. The indications suggest that once again Trump will avoid actual policy, and as a result the Hillary Clinton campaign must be licking their lips, a result like this couldn’t be more perfect for them, as it further consolidates Clinton’s position as the only candidate in this race who has put forward any real policy.
With Clinton’s poll numbers now pretty good, all she has to do is turn up and perform as competently as she did in the first two debates. For Trump, he must now put forward some proper policy, or he has got no chance.