Danger Ahead? The Early Line On The 2016 Presidential Debates

With less than two months to go before the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are hurtling toward the biggest, most anticipated events of their careers. Ratings for the fall 2016 debates could reach historic proportions, in a way that hasn't happened since Sarah Palin debated Joe Biden back in 2008. For their convention speeches, Trump and Clinton each drew somewhere in the range of 30 million viewers. Debate audiences will undoubtedly be double that number, perhaps even triple--and that's counting only viewers within the United States.

So where do things stand as July turns to August, and what can we expect in the weeks to come? A schedule of three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate has been announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, along with proposed formats. These matchups are set to take place between late September and mid-October on college campuses in New York, Virginia, Missouri, and Nevada. Moderators will be announced in August.

All of this is standard operating procedure. Also standard is for presidential nominees to officially accept the debate commission's invitation, usually by Labor Day. We can expect Clinton to follow this pattern in the near future, with a minimum of drama. As for Trump--who knows? During the primary season, Trump boycotted an important Fox News debate in Iowa because he did not like the choice of Megyn Kelly as moderator. But would he dare to shirk a general election debate, one carried on every major network before an audience of 100 million people?

Historical precedent does exist for fewer than the three traditional debates. As incumbent presidents with comfortable leads in the polls, Ronald Reagan (1984) and Bill Clinton (1996) each managed to whittle the schedule down to two joint appearances. However, no non-incumbent has ever sought a reduced line-up of debates--usually it's just the opposite.

If Gary Johnson and Bill Weld get into this fall's presidential debates by hitting 15 per cent in national polls, that could provide Trump with a different pretext for shirking a debate or two--or at least trying to dictate terms in exchange for his participation. Trump considers himself a show business impresario, so undoubtedly he will have opinions regarding format, timing, moderators, and other production details. The question is, will he be in a position to make demands?

Trump has plenty of reason to fear these debates. Never before has he been tested at this level or in such an intense way. Presidential debates are not games for amateurs--even gifted amateurs, like Ross Perot. Yes, Trump did cycle through about a dozen Republican primary debates, clinching the nomination in the process, but the face-off with Hillary is an altogether different beast of an altogether different size and ferocity. In the primary debates Trump always shared the stage with a gaggle of competitors, which inevitably took the pressure off. Like a character in a sitcom, he didn't have to do much more than pop up every few minutes, look into the camera, and detonate a zinger.

Clinton, by contrast, notched plenty of one-on-one sparring with Bernie Sanders during the primaries, as she did in 2008 with Barack Obama and in 2000 with Rick Lazio. Lacking any such experience, how will Donald Trump hold up over the course of a ninety-minute debate, jousting against so formidable an opponent? Jokes and insults can only take a guy so far. And Clinton boasts another a critical credential: this isn't her first time at the rodeo. As a veteran of the genre, she particularly understands the value of homework; like the law student she once was, she will master every aspect of Trump's record. Furthermore, she will do everything within her power to needle him during their time together onstage, hoping to provoke as many negative YouTube moments as possible for her opponent.

And how will Trump prepare for his moment of glory? There is little-to-no evidence that he engaged in anything resembling standard debate prep during the primaries, and it's difficult to conceive of him submitting to sixteen full-scale, real-time mock debates under cameras and lights, the way Mitt Romney did. History is replete with candidates who resisted debate prep--most of them losers.

Yet Hillary Clinton and her team cannot take for granted that experience, strategy, and superior prep will clinch the debate. In gearing up for this series, they face the almost impossible challenge of anticipating something that cannot be anticipated--the shock and awe of Donald Trump's mouth. If there's one thing Trump can legitimately claim as his forte, it's his ability to hijack a live media moment, to subvert the script even as it is being written. This is something that ought to be keeping the Clinton folks up at night.