Why Monday night’s debate is important.
Tonight, the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will take place at Hofstra University, New York.
For the candidates, this will be one of the most important moments of the campaign thus far. Polling by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News has found that 34 percent of voters consider the debate very important in deciding who they support, whilst it has been estimated that the television audience could reach 120 million.
For Trump this debate is a step into the unknown. During the Republican Primary campaign, he took part in eleven debates. However, the smallest of these contained four candidates. Contrast this with Monday’s debate, which will be head-to-head between just Trump and Clinton, after Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein failed to qualify. The significance of this is that Trump will be forced to speak for considerably longer than he had to during the Republican primary debates.
In the Republican Primary debates, Trump relied upon an improvisational style, and proved to be strong in terms of soundbites and withering putdowns, with his labelling of Ted Cruz as ‘Lyin’ Ted’, and Marco Rubio as ‘Little Marco’. However, in this head-to-head debate, that won’t be enough. Trump will be required to speak for around 40 minutes, and will have to display a strong grasp of policy, something which wasn’t really required during the primaries. How well he manages this, may well decide the outcome of this debate.
For Hillary Clinton, she faces a very different task in this debate. During the primary campaign, she took part in a string of head-to-head debates with Bernie Sanders, whilst she also took part in many during the mammoth 2008 Democratic primary campaign. In short, she has always been considered to be a confident debater. But in this debate, the scrutiny on Clinton will be regarding something very different: her health.
Presidential debates can be a very superficial way of judging who is the best candidate for the job of President. Typically, the candidate judged to have won the debate is the candidate who people feel looks the most presidential whilst on stage, rather than the candidate who displays the best grasp of policy. Take the example of the 1960 Presidential campaign, the first to feature televised debates between the candidates. In these debates, the television viewers judged John F. Kennedy to have comprehensively defeated Richard Nixon, in large part because Nixon appeared nervous and sweaty on stage. However, those listening to the debate on the radio, felt that Nixon had won because of his better grasp of policy. This shows just how important appearance and confidence can be in deciding the victor in a televised debate.
In fact, campaign staffers have been known to say that the best way of knowing who will be judged the winner in a televised debate, is to watch it with the sound on mute, as it will be the candidate who appears most confident who wins.
For Hillary Clinton to be considered to have performed well, she will need to demonstrate that she has fully recovered from the bout of pneumonia that she was struggling with earlier this month. Any repeat of the coughing fit she suffered when addressing a campaign rally earlier this month, could be hugely damaging during a televised debate. Given her experience, it is clear that her knowledge of policy will be up to the task of debating Trump. However, for Clinton, the important thing is to try and show the country that she is physically fit for office.
Generally, candidates don’t manage to win a presidential race as a result of a good performance in a debate. However a bad performance in a debate, can certainly go a long way towards losing the presidency. For example, the aforementioned incident of Nixon’s severe sweating on stage. Whilst George H.W. Bush checking his watch during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, gave the impression of someone who didn’t want to be there, and was taking victory for granted.
In the 2000 Presidential Election, during debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush, Gore was heard to sigh when Bush gave answers, giving the impression of being condescending, whilst he was also accused of invading Bush’s personal space by walking over to him as if about to start a fight. Gore’s debate performances were said to have severely damaged his chances of winning the presidency.
It is from the debates in the 2000 election that Clinton can learn the most. If she acts like Gore and reacts condescendingly to Trump’s answers, then she will likely be punished for it. For Trump, not having debated on this scale before is perhaps an advantage. As a result, there will be relatively low expectations regarding his performance, and he is likely to get away with more mistakes than his rival.
Overall, for these two unpopular candidates this debate is very important. Whilst it may not decide the outcome of this presidential race, it will certainly decide who has the momentum going forward.
In such a close race, a big mistake could be absolutely fatal to either of the candidates’ chances. Trump must appear to have a strong grasp on policy, whilst for Clinton it will be vitally important that she appears physically fit for the office of President.
For both, this could be a defining moment of the campaign.