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Playing The Expectations Game: At First Debate, All Eyes Will Be On Trump

The fall debates are always a big part of any presidential campaign. But with many 2016 voters underwhelmed by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, this year’s debates could well be more influential than usual. (AP photos)
The fall debates are always a big part of any presidential campaign. But with many 2016 voters underwhelmed by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, this year’s debates could well be more influential than usual. (AP photos)
This article is more than 4 years old.

An audience of near-Super Bowl proportions is expected to watch Monday’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

It’s fair to conjecture that if the debate were between Clinton and Jeb Bush or John Kasich, for example, the viewership wouldn’t be quite so large.

As with the Super Bowl, many viewers will tune in for the show rather than the substance. They’ll be watching partly to see which version of Trump will decide to make an appearance on stage.

In this regard, Trump has far more to lose — or win — than Clinton in this first debate.

If Trump angrily casts aside this opportunity to make the undecideds in the electorate forget the foibles of the last 15 months, he won’t get a second chance.

A critical factor that Trump has in his corner ... is extremely low expectations. Thus, he doesn’t need to perform well at the debate to exceed them.

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s talented new campaign manager, has gotten her principal to remain mostly on message over the last month and offer a few policy proposals on taxes and the economy. This has been part of an attempt to offset the widely held perception that Trump doesn’t have the temperament to gain access to the nuclear codes.

Yet, on Monday Trump will be in front of a camera for 90 minutes, with no teleprompter to control his wicked penchant for making outrageous off-the-cuff remarks.

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He will also be facing a seasoned debater in Clinton who will try hard to goad him into losing that famous temper. Clinton demonstrated during her 2008 debates with then-candidate Barack Obama that she will sling barbs to try to throw her opponent off their game.

Trump made it through a dozen GOP primary debates not by ignoring but by responding to each slight hurled by his opponents. This is what some misguided but prideful Trump supporters would argue makes Trump who he is. It is also what many casual viewers are hoping for as a means of entertainment on an otherwise dull Monday night.

Clinton’s camp has made it known that their candidate also has prepped hard on the issues, playing into the narrative that she is a policy wonk. Clinton will leverage this perceived comparative advantage by trying to pin Trump down on specifics that he likely doesn’t know — or care about — to demonstrate in real-time that he’s not up to governing. Trump doesn’t seem overly concerned, however, as he remained on the campaign trail and eschewed prepping for the debate most of last week.

A critical factor that Trump has in his corner — ironically, thanks mostly to the media — is extremely low expectations. Thus, he doesn’t need to perform well at the debate to exceed them. Despite this mitigating point, though, in the absence of an unforeseen event, the elasticity of the response to Trump’s debate performance will be far greater than that of Clinton — particularly in the negative direction.

It’s conceivable that Trump can effectively end his chances Monday through gross debate errors, particularly if his temper flares and he comes across as un-presidential.

The only near-certainty is that, for better or for worse, the first debate will provide a political spectacle unmatched in modern U.S. history.

In contrast, if Clinton performs poorly and Trump emerges unscathed, the race will continue to tighten into October. But Clinton is more of a known quantity and much of her electoral support is baked in

Her campaign suffers, however, from a significant enthusiasm gap that makes her vulnerable. But Trump, paradoxically, could go a long way towards solving that problem for her with a serious debate snafu.

GOP candidates in battleground states are wary that Trump missteps will flow downstream. Like everyone else, they realize that Trump is wildly unpredictable and that the debate setting will present him with numerous temptations. Those candidates realize that they may have to spend much of Tuesday responding to questions in their local media about Trump’s performance rather than discussing the issues affecting their own races.

The only near-certainty is that, for better or for worse, the first debate will provide a political spectacle unmatched in modern U.S. history.

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John Sivolella Cognoscenti contributor
John Sivolella is on the faculty at Columbia University, where he teaches about the presidency, federal agencies and public policy.

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