Tomorrow night’s historic presidential debate represents a high-stakes juncture in a deeply strange election year — potent with moments that could flip a close election between what many voters regard as the lesser of evils.
It’s noteworthy that such an old rhetorical form as a debate remains so relevant and influential. During the 90 minutes of Monday’s debate, any moment could become the fulcrum on which public opinion turns. It could be something a candidate says or the body language of the candidate who is listening. It could be a factual gaffe or an off-putting emotional tone.
And while debate itself dates back to Ancient Greece, modern media has certainly raised the ante on its potency.
In the first-ever television debate, Richard Nixon appeared sweaty and shifty in contrast to a cool, calm and presidential John F. Kennedy. And though in 1960, few voters actually saw that debate with their own eyes, today’s voracious media consumption ensures that every sentence and gesture is parsed, judged and retweeted.
Social media takes debate to a whole-new level, when particularly damning moments can quickly gain millions of views on YouTube, become a viral meme or spark celebrity tweets that reach an army of followers. Already, Mark Cuban’s tweet about his front-row seat for the debate has triggered a Twitter war with Donald Trump.
So, what should we be looking for in Monday’s historic rhetorical face-off?
Who scores the points on the facts? Who looks dumb? Some say the 1976 Presidential election turned when President Gerald R. Ford stated that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. That gaffe helped balance the scales for a governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. I think we all can agree that Clinton, a former first lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, has the advantage in the substance column. The question remains how much a mistake by Donald Trump matters. Earlier this year, Trump deflected fallout when he stated in an interview that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not invade Ukraine, only to have it pointed out that Putin had already taken over Crimea, a part of Ukraine.
Presidential scholar Ed Moore notes that Hillary Clinton has a distinct advantage in this area, having debated Obama five times and Sanders four times. Though Trump participated in a long series of debates with the huge field of former Republican candidates, Moore points out that the format allowed him to score easy points with “word bombs” and provided no time for substantive follow up. A head-to-head debate will not be so easy and may reveal gaps in his preparedness. Remember the 2011 debate where former Texas Gov. Rick Perry stated that his tax plan would eliminate three government agencies? That sounded great until Perry couldn’t remember the third agency and found himself saying, “Oops.” Trump needs to avoid a serious “oops” moment tomorrow night.
Turn a negative into a positive.
With two candidates who have such high negatives, there is an opportunity for one of them to address their white elephant in the room and ride it out in triumph. Ronald Reagan did this beautifully during a debate against Walter Mondale in the 1984 election. Reagan was 73 years old at the time, causing some to wonder if he was too old to be seeking a second presidential term. Mondale pushed the issue at times, but Reagan defused it with a single line. When asked if age would be a problem, Reagan responded, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience burst into laughter and Reagan won in a landslide. Look for Clinton or Trump to turn around one of their looming negatives with a well-planned and well-played line.
Have some heart.
When it’s all said and done, voters will decide how they feel about the candidates and judge them at the heart level. So far, Trump has had the advantage in scoring most of the emotional points in this election, stoking voter anger and fears. Striking the right emotional chord is critical, and Clinton runs the risk of being all head and no heart. Look no further Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis’ answer to the question of whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered in a 1988 debate against George H. W Bush. Dukakis’ robotic answer that “I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime” further painted him as a remote and passionless politician.
Hillary Clinton being a woman adds a unique dynamic to tomorrow night’s debate. She needs to come off as strong and believable as a commander in chief, without seeming shrill and strident. Trump needs to temper his natural pugilistic instincts to avoid coming off as a bully.
Be honest but avoid fatal weirdness.
In a year when voters’ political loathing and BS barometers are at all-time highs, there is a real opportunity for the candidates to score points for genuine human authenticity. Expect Trump to take a shot at Clinton for her husband’s infidelity and her response to it. She might use that awkward moment to drive female voters further away from Trump if she responds honestly in a way they can relate to. She might also turn the tables and strike back, given that Trump, with a string of infidelities and three marriages, is hardly above reproach. Voters want candidates to speak the truth, but disclosures can sometimes lead to moments of fatal weirdness, as when Dennis Kucinich admitted in a 2007 debate to seeing a UFO. Keep an eye out tomorrow to see who wins the believability points.
In such a long, painful election year, it’s tempting to tune out. But tomorrow night’s show is too filled with potential and peril to miss. You never know when debate history will be made. With the stakes so high this year, you’ll want to have a front-row seat to see it for yourself.