In any other election year, if a candidate showed up for a debate and was only halfway coherent, the performance would be considered an embarrassment. But Donald Trump, reality show mogul and media operative extraordinaire, has already set the stage for winning the debate ― not with cogent lines of argument or sharing new policy proposal, but by setting the bar so low that his staying focused for 90 minutes and using a few zingers will be considered a success.
The groundwork for this strategy of winning by lowering expectations was laid over several weeks and involved a great deal of media complicity. At the commander in chief forum in early September, Hillary was grilled on details of national security such as the use of ground troops in Libya and whether airpower should be used to combat ISIS in Syria. Trump was not asked how he would combat ISIS, nor challenged on his statements that “the VA is a corrupt enterprise” or his position on the Iraq war.
Why? Despite the fact both are aiming for the highest office in the land, the prevailing sentiment is Trump can’t possibly be expected to know as much as a former senator and secretary of state. Both candidates are applying for the same job with two entirely different sets of requirements and expectations.
The entire week leading up to the debate, Trump supporters and surrogates have pushed the narrative that it would actually be unfair to expect Trump to perform as well as Hillary at the debate. Media has covered extensively how Trump isn’t preparing for debates in the traditional way and his supporters praise the fact he’s an outsider unfamiliar with the rigors of formal campaigning. In this narrative, preparation is a negative, something reserved for elitist nerds, not take-charge businessmen.
The Republican National Committee doubled down on setting unequal expectations for the debate in a recent memo. Rather than touting Trump’s selling points, they focused on whether or not Hillary will “live up to her reputation as a talented debater... Hillary has no excuse not to turn in a near-flawless performance.” Whereas “few are expecting the same level of polish from a verbal gunslinger... who hasn’t been running for president for 24 years.”
Hillary’s camp is well aware she is headed into this debate with expectations set in Trump’s favor. Hillary will not make the mistake Republican primary challengers made of attempting to match Trump for humor and showmanship. Instead, Hillary is owning the fact that she is prepared to be president and commander in chief, touting experience and understanding of policy as a basic requirement for gaining the White House, and pushing the narrative that Trump simply doesn’t have the intellectual rigor to succeed as a head of state. Her campaign is also challenging media and moderators to hold Trump to an equal standard, stating in a pre-debate conference call that “any candidate that tells this many lies, clearly can’t win the debate on the merits.”
Winning “on the merits” isn’t Trump’s goal. His supporters aren’t offended at being called anti-intellectual. Trump’s freewheeling thinking is an asset that appeals to his base, which according to Gallup is less likely to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher education and more likely to work in a blue collar occupation. Trump has made it this far because of people who appreciate his lack of polish, off-the-cuff remarks, and entrepreneurial success. Factual slip-ups are of no concern to his base; they will respond more positively to one-liners and performance than to quality of content. For this group of people, Hillary’s policy preparedness and dedication in pursuing higher public office is equated with calculation and dishonesty.
Trump may not be a policy prodigy, but he is no fool. Despite putting out publicly that he is not preparing for the debate in traditional ways, Trump has Roger Ailes running his debate prep ― a former Reagan operative who is one of the best in the business at playing an audience. By lowering expectations not just for the debate, but for the level of finesse and experience required of the leader in the White House, Trump has already won.
Nayyera is CEO of Avicenna Strategy, a public relations firm helping organizations connect and communicate across borders. A former White House Senior Director and State Department spokesperson, Nayyera is a regular commentator on politics and current affairs. @nayyeroar