Debates are overhyped media events that mostly serve to reinforce voter predispositions to support one candidate or the other. While debates are one of the few events that have the potential to reset a presidential race, “winning a presidential debate” rarely means that a candidate articulated a set of careful and thoughtful arguments or a compelling vision of the future.
Debates instead are remembered for zingy one-liners; mistakes, gaffes, or blunders; or, in the case of Al Gore, annoying body language.
Consider some of the ways debates are “won” or “lost.”
- In 1976, Gerald Ford lost the debate by mistakenly saying there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and by proclaiming that in Ford Administration there never would be.
- In 1980, in the closest instance of a substantive argument winning a debate, Ronald Reagan won by asking voters if they were better off than they were four years ago. The debate is perhaps better remembered though for Reagan’s one-liner “There you go again,” used against a Jimmy Carter reference to Reagan’s opposition against Medicare.
- In 1984, Reagan used a nicely played quip to put aside concern about his age with this famous line: “I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
- In 1988, Michael Dukakis lost a debate by providing a legal argument, rather than an emotional response, to a question about whether he would continue to support the death penalty if his wife, Kitty Dukakis, were raped and murdered.
- Perhaps the best example of a one-liner decimating a political opponent came in the vice-presidential debate in 1988 when, after Dan Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy, Lloyd Bentsen countered with: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” It is perhaps always best if your one-liner leaves your opponent looking stunned and humiliated.
- In 2000, Al Gore lost a debate because of his annoying body language as he grew visibly frustrated with George W. Bush’s responses. Gore’s responses were shown on split screens and his sighs were audible throughout the Bush responses.
With history as a guide, we can outline a set of expectations for why Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will lose the debate.
Why Trump Will Win the Debate: A lack of detailed policy knowledge never kept Ronald Reagan from performing well in the debates. Of the two candidates, Trump seems most likely to deliver a stinging and unpredictable one-liner. His lack of concern for norms, rules, or conventions may also leave Hillary Clinton as frustrated as Al Gore in 2000.
Why Trump Will Lose the Debate: Trump’s lack of knowledge is perhaps matched only by his confidence in his ability to BS his way through answers. He may have made enough factual errors over the course of this election cycle that it no longer matters that he gets the facts wrong, but look for big factual errors or a series of errors that makes Trump’s truthfulness (or lack thereof) the storyline from this debate. If the moderator of the debate, Lester Holt, tries to hold Trump accountable for these factual errors, Trump may also grow frustrated with the “rigged” presidential debates. Hillary Clinton will do her best to nudge him so that he loses his cool and shows that he is temperamentally unfit to be president.
Why Hillary Will Win the Debate: Hillary Clinton has deep and rich knowledge of process and policy. That knowledge will matter less than her ability to convey an image that she is presidential and capable of handling whatever is thrown her way.
Why Hillary Clinton Will Lose the Debate: Because she is Hillary Clinton, she will be over-prepared, every contingency will be thought through and every answer rehearsed 150 times over. If her answers appear overly calculated, she will reinforce the image that everything she says and does is poll-tested. In addition to appearing presidential, she also needs to appear authentic. Trump’s willingness to change positions, deny previous statements, and otherwise question even basic factual understandings makes him a moving target. For Clinton, this may mean being capable of calling an audible and responding to defensive and offensive formations she couldn’t possibly prepare for.
Remember as well that expectations matter and the media often declare the “winner” of the debate the candidate that outperformed expectations. Sarah Palin, for example, “won” a vice presidential debate against Joe Biden because the expectations for her performance were set so low that she merely needed to show up and not make any overt blunders.
In this debate, the expectations aren’t as clear as to a likely winner, but if either candidate can play against their personal expectations they can win. This would mean Trump would need to appear knowledgeable and informed with respect to policy detail. Clinton would need to come across as authentic and personable.
Regardless of who wins this first debate expect the advantages to wash out over the series of three debates. The loser of the first debate usually makes a comeback in the second and third debates. Think Obama vs. Romney in 2012.
At the end of the day, the debates are most important for moving voters in the directions they are already moving in. Overall, this means we expect the race to continue to tighten as we move toward a narrow Democratic win and divisive Election Day.