The election analysis provided by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., does not constitute and should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any candidate or political party.
After taking shots at each other on the campaign trail, in advertisements and in the media, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will finally be face to face for the first of three presidential debates next Monday.
The debate pits two candidates with contrasting styles, personality and messages against each other, all in front of a potentially record-setting audience. In short, it’s political theater at its finest. Here’s what’s at stake and what to watch as the drama unfolds on television:
By some estimates, the debate could attract more than 100 million viewers. For comparison, 112 million people watched the last Super Bowl—making it the third-most watched television program ever.
If the raw number of viewers alone isn’t enough pressure for candidates, there’s also an important lesson from history: Once the debates are over, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the trailing candidate to change the election’s outcome. In the 11 presidential elections since the first televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960, the leader in the polls following the debates has always gone on to win the White House. And since debate viewership is usually at its highest during the first debate, next Monday may represent each candidate’s best chance to make a lasting impression.
For Trump, a debate victory could accelerate a recent burst of momentum. He has trailed for weeks in the national polls and still faces an uphill climb to win the Electoral College, but the race has clearly been tightening over the last two weeks and is now a virtual tie.
Clinton remains the front-runner, but her 6-8 point lead in national polls has evaporated over the last few weeks. She has been battered by questions about her health and made what many view as an unforced error when she referred to some Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” She will be looking to get her campaign back on track by turning in a strong debate performance.
How the first debate will work
Monday’s debate will be moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. The 90-minute session will be divided into six 15-minute segments, with two segments focusing on each of three broad topics: “achieving prosperity,” “securing America” and “America’s direction.”
Holt will begin each segment with a question to both candidates, who will take turns being the first to respond. Each candidate will have two minutes to respond, followed by a period where the candidates can engage each other directly. Holt will be able to add follow-up questions to continue the discussion.
What to expect from Clinton
The candidates have very different strengths and would prefer very different debates. Clinton would prefer a policy-driven debate. Her strength is the depth of her knowledge about public policy and her comfort in talking about policy details. Her campaign believes that her command of a wide range of issues will draw a sharp contrast with Trump, who tends to answer policy-oriented questions with generalizations rather than details.
One of Clinton’s challenges, however, will be striking a balance between showing her policy expertise and being “boring.” Many viewers aren’t interested in a deep dive into policy arcana. Rather, they are focusing on how the candidates appear. Clinton will need to avoid lecturing the viewing public about policy minutiae.
Expect Clinton also to try to goad Trump into losing his patience. She will remind viewers of Trump’s most inflammatory statements. Reports are that one of Clinton’s main areas of focus during debate rehearsals has been arming herself with numerous examples of places where Trump has contradicted himself, said something that was easily proven false or changed his position from one he held years ago. She will use these examples not only to draw contrasts with her own positions, but to get under Trump’s skin and see if he will lash out and say something outrageous or offensive.
What to expect from Trump
Trump, on the other hand, would prefer a more raucous, free-wheeling debate. He dominated the Republican primary debates by launching one-line zingers, belittling his opponents and making outlandish statements and gestures that inevitably brought headlines the next day.
Trump also dominated the primary debates by holding the floor. In the 11 debates in which Trump participated, he had the most speaking time in six and the second-most time in four more. Overall, he spoke far more than any of his opponents. It’s harder for your opponents to hurt you if you are speaking and they cannot.
Of course, it will be much harder to use that tactic in a head-to-head debate. In the Republican primary debates, there were never fewer than four candidates on the debate stage, and in the early debates there were as many as 11. Having such a numerous field effectively encouraged the candidates to trade barbs rather than have substantive policy discussions. The best the moderators could do to keep up was to make sure all the candidates had time to respond to any comments directed their way.
The presidential debates should be different. The moderators will be able to follow-up on the candidates’ statements and probe for more depth. There won’t be any opportunity for a candidate to remain silent for minutes at a time. Trump will need to show a deeper expertise on policy issues than he has had to at any point in the campaign to date.
As a result, he is likely to try frequently to steer the debate away from policy issues and toward some of his opponent’s potential weak spots: the Clinton email scandal, stories about the Clinton Foundation and concerns about her health. Polls show that many voters find Trump more honest and trustworthy than Clinton. Trump will try to use the debate to underscore those perceptions.
Trump’s strengths are his personality, his willingness to say what is on his mind in an easy-to-understand way and the many ways in which he demonstrates he isn’t an overly scripted politician. But he also faces questions about his temperament and his readiness for the job. In polls, he trails Clinton badly on questions about which candidate appears more qualified or ready to be president. He’ll need to balance being his usual boisterous self with a need to reassure voters that he can be presidential.
One other contrast to watch is how Trump treats Clinton. One of his low points of the early primary season came when Trump made disparaging comments about the physical appearance of one of his female opponents, Carly Fiorina. There’s a fine line between criticizing your opponent and coming off as a bully, and Trump will need to find that line.
How the candidates play to their strengths and address their weaknesses will be a key theme to watch as the debates progress. If either candidate can make significant headway in winning over voters during the debates, he or she will have taken a big step closer to the White House.
What you can do next
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