On Monday, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will face off in their first debate at Hofstra University in New York. In a race this close and with as many as 100 million people watching, the debates present both candidates with chances to seize momentum but potential pitfalls as well.
Here are four things to think about as Donald Trump prepares for the debates. We also looked at four things to watch for Clinton.
1. Can Trump exceed low expectations?
In a year when voters are clearly ready for change and disgusted with the status quo, Trump has the advantage of being the outsider. But he has big deficits with voters who think he doesn’t have the character and temperament to be president.
On Monday, expectations are low for Trump, but he has one major task — convince enough voters that he is a plausible president.
“If Trump can stand on a debate stage for two hours and not lose his temper and come across as as reasonable person, he’ll have a good night,” said Alex Conant, who was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s spokesman during the GOP primaries. “And that’s a lot easier than Clinton’s task — which is to convince people she’s not a liar.”
Democrats fume that Trump is graded on an curve, and there’s no doubt the bar for him is lower than it is for Clinton. As long as he doesn’t say something outrageous that’s racist or sexist, he wins the night.
But there is one area where expectations for Trump are high — people expect him to be aggressive and to dominate the debate the way he did during the primaries when he eviscerated one opponent after another.
2. How does Trump face off against a woman?
This could be a tricky one for Trump. He will be doing something no one else has done before: debating the first female candidate for president. Trump will probably try to avoid any obviously sexist put-downs.
One of the few bad moments Trump had in the GOP primary debates was when he disparaged former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s looks. Trump might also be asked about his recent comment that Clinton doesn’t have a “presidential look” or his repeated questions about her “stamina.”
3. Can Trump debate the same way he did in the primaries?
Trump has acquired a kind of mythic reputation as a debate performer. After all, he dispatched 16 experienced challengers in the Republican primary. And he does have formidable skills honed by years as a reality TV star. He speaks in simple, clear sentences. He has a commanding physical presence and a “huuuge” personality. And he’s shown on occasion (for example, his press conference in Mexico) that he can, in fact, act “presidential.”
In the primary, whenever the debates were about personalities or personal records, he was very comfortable. But when he tried to talk in depth about his own policy proposals, he was out of his depth.
Clinton will be ready to exploit those moments to paint Trump as unprepared for the Oval Office. And Trump has never before debated just one opponent.
4. What happens after the debate?
There are three phases to a debate: pre-game expectation setting, the debate itself and the post-game battle to control the perceptions of who won and who lost.
Trump is already working the refs and creating a narrative in case he doesn’t do well. Just as he’s claimed the only way he can lose the election is if it’s stolen from him, he’s been saying the debates are rigged against him. He claims NBC’s Lester Holt, the first debate’s moderator, is biased.
“Look, it’s a phony system. Lester is a Democrat. They’re all Democrats, Okay? Its a very unfair system,” Trump told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News on Monday.
In fact, Holt, who is an experienced journalist and anchors NBC’s Nightly News, has been a registered Republican since 2003, according to New York state voter registration documents.