History is about to be made at Hofstra University, and excitement is building to a crescendo among the school's nearly 11,000 students. On Monday evening, Democrat Hillary Clinton will face Republican Donald Trump in a presidential debate that will likely be the most-watched television program in U.S. history. It will also be the first time in American history a woman presidential candidate from a major party will participate in a debate during a general election.
The Hofstra debate will be a major turning point in the election. While Clinton is ahead in the polls, her lead is fragile. Meanwhile, Trump has shown some momentum recently, and he has even pulled ahead in polls from several key battleground states, like Ohio and North Carolina. Political advisors for both candidates are vigorously playing the expectations game so as to favorably position their candidate in advance with the press. If expectations are low for Trump, a good debate performance by him may win him more supporters.
Each candidate has major perception hurdles to overcome with Americans. Trump is viewed as more trustworthy than Clinton by likely voters in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, but she overwhelmingly outperforms him in temperament, being a good commander-in-chief, and experience. Trump holds an edge over Clinton in who would be best to handle the economy. Clinton enjoys a strong lead among minorities, women and young voters. Trump does well with men, white voters and those without a college degree. Interestingly, half of Trump's likely voters say they will vote for him because they are against Clinton.
A majority of Americans polled want a change in Washington, and that frustration with government gridlock and political bickering fueled the rise of Trump. Trump has campaigned as the change agent while Clinton has had difficulty clearly articulating how she would change Washington. Trump's loyal supporters don't care what he says and how he says it. But temperament will be a big factor in winning over independent and uncommitted voters who will likely make the difference election day. So Trump is certain to be on his best behavior Monday night in hopes of securing undecided voters. Conversely, Clinton will not be able in a single debate to get more voters to think she is more trustworthy. But she may be able to use her enormous experience to overshadow Trump on key issues.
This will be the third presidential debate held at Hofstra University, more than any other university. During the 2012 Hofstra debate Governor Mitt Romney spoke of "binders full of women," and in the 2008 Hofstra debate Senator John McCain repeatedly brought up "Joe the Plumber." This year's debate will be moderated by NBC News' Lester Holt. There will be six 15-segments, for a total of 90-minutes. The topics, chosen by Holt, will be "America's direction," "achieving prosperity" and "securing America." The candidates will have an opportunity to respond directly to each other.
To be sure, Trump and Clinton will try hard to avoid making gaffes that may change the course of the election. But will Clinton look healthy? How will she handle questions about her emails? Will Trump be able to endure 90-minutes of tough questions? Will he explain his positions on issues in-depth, like his "secret plan" to eliminate ISIS? What about his tax returns, or Trump University? And how will the recent police shootings factor into this debate?
Hofstra took over the debate on short notice when Wright State University in Ohio pulled out in July for financial reasons. Hofstra's president, Stuart Rabinowitz, said at the time, "We greatly appreciate the faith shown in us by the Commission on Presidential Debates." Now, six weeks later, security around this 250-acre campus in Hempstead, NY, will be unprecedented. Monday's classes have been canceled, many parking lots and some nearby major routes will be shut all day. Meanwhile, hundreds of media outlets will take up positions on campus as Hofstra becomes the political epicenter of the universe for one day.
As one student wrote in her blog, "I firmly believe that this debate is an incredible opportunity not only for the university, but for the students who dream of building and shaping these events in the future."