Presidential TV debates: What to expect from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

What’s at stake in TV debates (everything maybe?) and what kind of strategy do you expect from both, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Read few comments.

Robert Busby, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

The increased focus on the presidential debates, starting next week, highlights popular and media interest in an ever tightening race between Trump and Clinton. Many of the swing states which may go a long way to deciding the presidency are now deemed too close to call, and the upcoming 3 debates have taken on an unexpected importance in highlighting the policy stances of the candidates, and perhaps more importantly highlighting their personalities when presented with a face-to-face confrontation.

It is anticipated that the debates, particularly the first, will be the most watched of all time, with an anticipated audience of over 100 million. Ordinarily they serve to consolidate existing voter preferences, but the volatility of the election brings a lot more into play this time around. What is unclear is how Trump will approach a 1-2-1 contest. In all of his Republican primary contest he shared a stage with several others and, due to time constraints in particular, did not have to articulate many of his policy ideas in detail. The upcoming format will make far greater demands on him in this area. A second dilemma for Trump is how aggressive to be with Hillary Clinton. If he is too considerate then he risks allowing her to portray herself as the senior statesperson with the political experience. If he is aggressive it may create sympathy for Clinton and cast him as the corporate bully.  In the Republican primaries he was very much a loose-cannon, stating what came to mind and not really following any pre-determined format. It is hard to see him having the leeway to do that here.

For Clinton’s part is it difficult to anticipate how Trump will approach the contest, and it is understood that she has practiced against individuals who have adopted a range of different debate strategies. It is also unclear as to how much she will try to defend Obama’s record, and at the same time advance her own agenda for the presidency. She is a very experienced debater, and has considerable more experience in the 1-2-1 forum. One concern is what the viewers of the debates are looking for. Is it going to be a serious consideration of policy and of the viable alternatives for America’s future? Or is it going to be entertainment, where the barometer is the extent to which the viewer enjoys the performance of the candidate? Clinton should win on the first point, and Trump on the second.

There is a lot of focus on the role of the moderators. Trump believes that the mainstream media is crooked and is unable or unwilling to say things as they are, that they are part of the establishment which has let America down. Hillary Clinton has expressed concern that Trump has been given excessive leeway thus far in the campaign and has not been called to account for a range of controversial statements. In many respect the debate post-script may well focus on allegations of the nature of the questioning and the latitude given to the respective candidates by those who pose the questions.

With three debates there will still be opportunities for both to come back from a poor first debate showing, but normally the first debate does a lot to shape opinions of the candidates and it should be the one which has the greatest impact.

Alan SchroederProfessor, School of Journalism, Northeastern University

I wouldn’t say everything, but debates always have high stakes, especially in a close election. Debates on their own do not typically change the outcome of an election, but of course the audiences are enormous, as is the press coverage, so these programs are significant elements of the presidential campaign. Also, there remain a small number of undecided voters who need to be persuaded, and a debate is a good place for the candidates to try to accomplish that.

Hillary will project a sense of maturity and leadership, or at least attempt to do so against the unpredictable presence of Trump. She is a very well prepared debater, and also more experienced than her opponent. I don’t think we will actually know her strategy until she sees how Trump decides to behave.

Trump needs to try to seem more serious and presidential, which will be difficult for him to do. His natural instinct is to approach debates as entertainment and not as political dialogue. Debates ARE entertainment, to a certain extent, but they are also opportunities to display knowledge and experience. He also needs to be careful not to treat Clinton in a way that looks sexist — this would look like bullying.

Allan Louden, Professor of Communication, Wake Forest University

Debates matter. In nearly every election Presidential debates are impactful, usually to verify, but sometime contravene, prevailing campaign narratives. In an election where most voters would prefer to not vote for either candidate, the debate could produce a moment, some reason to tilt decisions.

Hillary Clinton must not feminize the debate with a policy wonk version of “Love Trump Hate.”  ‘Insipid firmness’ feeds Trump’s narrative.  She cannot be too patronizing, too ‘loveable,’ too slick. How about just saying what she really believes.

Donald Trump must not feminize the debate with moments of becoming “presidential.” Trump can only be Trump, pugnacious and macho which serves him best. He, however is at greater risk of saying something over the line that congeals doubt–too unapprised, too uncivil, too selfish.

Eric Ostermeier, Research Associate, Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, University of Minnesota

In recent weeks many political commentators have declared that the presidential debates are of paramount important and will likely determine the outcome of the November election. That is largely due, I suspect, because Donald Trump has remained much more competitive with Hillary Clinton than many prognosticators predicted he would be at this point, and, as such, the debates are viewed as Clinton’s last chance to distinguish herself from Trump and finally put the race out of reach. The assumption by the media is that Trump, not Clinton, is more apt to perform poorly in the debates as Clinton is regarded as having a more robust knowledge of public policy. But is this election even about policy?

Moreover, it is not necessarily appropriate to put too much emphasis on the first debate. In 2012, Barack Obama was largely expected to perform much better than Mitt Romney prior to the initial debate in Denver, Colorado. However, Romney turned in a superior debate performance, according to both public opinion polls and pundits, but Obama regrouped and was much stronger during the next two debates and ultimately won the election by 3.3 points. Who knows if the debates really had any net impact?

In terms of strategy, Trump did not alter much during his performances throughout the Republican primary debate season, and I doubt there will be significant changes in these debates other than he will likely have sharpened and expanded his views on some issues. Trump prefers to emphasis a few particular themes again and again as opposed to delving deeply into a particular topic. Trump will also probably not want to miss any opportunity he can get to incorporate humor into the debate, the value of which should not be underestimated, or perhaps even sarcastic jabs at Clinton.

Clinton will undoubtedly be armed with some attacks or counterattacks against Trump but will also be extremely well rehearsed to give in depth answers to the moderator’s policy questions. She will also likely try to find opportunities to project herself as a candidate who is willing to take strong actions against terrorism to disarm Trump in his attempt to characterize Clinton as weak on the issue of defending the United States.

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