Donald Trump is an arrogant slacker who wastes his time hanging out at greasy spoons when he should be spending his time studying ― not like that striving know-it-all Tracy Flick Hillary Clinton. Or at least, that’s what Trump’s campaign wants you to believe.
In the run-up to the first presidential debate Monday night, Trump’s team has been working to lower the bar so far for him that it’s basically just lying on the ground. Story after story talks about how Clinton is spending her time poring over wonky policy details in briefing books while Trump is just hanging out.
Trump senior adviser Jason Miller sent a memo last week stressing that Clinton “has more debates under her belt than almost any presidential candidate in history,” whereas Trump has been in a one-on-one debate only once.
“Hillary Clinton is on the ropes and needs to change the game,” Jason Miller, the Trump campaign’s senior communications adviser, said in a memo. “Given her extensive experience debating, high level of preparation and scripted nature Clinton’s campaign no doubt views [the Monday debate] as the best opportunity to alter the trajectory of the race. ... [Trump is] not rehearsing canned 30-second sound bites or spending hours in the film room like an NFL player. He will be prepared, but most importantly, he will be himself.”
This sort of expectation-managing creates an imbalanced scenario in which, as long as Trump shows up on time and manages not to puke or something, pundits will declare him the winner.
And the Trump team is certainly making its own preparations. Politico reported Friday that the campaign is building a detailed “psychological analysis” of Clinton by analyzing videos of her 16 years of debates.
The two candidates’ differential treatment was clear during a Sept. 7 veterans forum, the first such event during the general election. The moderator, NBC News host Matt Lauer, challenged Clinton on the use of her private email server and repeatedly interrupted her to stop her from filibustering. But with Trump, Lauer lobbed softballs like, “What have you experienced in your personal life or your professional life that you believe prepares you to make the decisions that a commander-in-chief has to make?”
“Candidates should expect to be challenged. They’re applying for a challenging job. But where Mr. Lauer treated Mrs. Clinton like someone running for president, he treated Mr. Trump like someone running to figure out how to be president, eventually,” New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote in a scathing review the following day.
Clinton’s team, meanwhile, sent out a press release on Friday with the headline, “Clinton Campaign: Trump Cannot Pass Debate Test If He Repeats These Debunked Lies.” Trump lies all the time ― and often gets away with it. During the Sept. 7 forum, Trump again repeated the falsehood that he opposed the invasion of Iraq, and Lauer did nothing to call him out.
“The debates are about each candidates laying out their vision for America, not making things up. Donald Trump should ― as Hillary Clinton will ― be expected to present his solutions for the problems that the country is facing,” Clinton campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri told reporters on Friday.
There’s a good reason for pre-debate wrangling: Scoring a knock-out could have enormous consequences. With a far closer race than many political observers anticipated, any development that could shift the polls even a few percentage points is desirable.
Political science research has shown that although debates don’t result in major poll changes, polls can shift by two or three percentage points during debate season. That doesn’t necessarily mean candidates’ performances during those events were the sole cause of the swing, but there does seem to be some effect.
Big debate moments can also come to define a candidate for the rest of the race and beyond, for better or worse ― Richard Nixon sweating next to a cool John F. Kennedy, Al Gore sighing while George W. Bush spoke and Michael Dukakis’ emotionless response to a hypothetical question about his wife being raped and murdered.
And a strong debate performance can re-energize a candidate’s base, much as it did in 2012, when Republican Mitt Romney pulled off a surprisingly strong showing against President Barack Obama ― a jolt the Clinton campaign could use right now as it tries to excite Democrats.
While Clinton will have the hurdle of meeting the public’s high expectations, Trump will have to debate the first female presidential nominee in history ― which comes with its own challenges. Clinton is traditionally a strong debater, and has benefited from the missteps of men who simply don’t know how to deal with a woman on the stage.
In 2008, Obama’s “You’re likable enough, Hillary” line backfired during a debate before the New Hampshire primaries, coming off as condescending in what was supposed to be an attempt to contrast his charisma with her more serious style. Clinton ended up winning in New Hampshire.
But more famous is what happened during the 2000 Senate race in New York, when Republican Rick Lazio walked out from behind his lectern and over to Clinton, invading her personal space and demanding she sign a campaign finance pledge. Clinton tried to shake his hand as he pointed and towered over her.
The maneuver was a disaster and has essentially become the textbook example of how a man can screw up when debating a woman.
There will certainly be a big audience no matter what happens during Monday’s event: More than 100 million people could tune in, exceeding previous records, for the 9 p.m. ET debate at Hofstra University in New York. A presidential debate commission official told The Huffington Post that several thousand journalists applied for credentials, and they expect more than 1,000 to actually attend.