Playing the Clinton vs. Trump debate expectations game

Donald Trump debates Donald Trump

Donald Trump debates Donald Trump

We’re in the post-convention phase of the 2016 elections, where the next big events planned are the presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Assuming that Trump agrees to have the debates, many Democrats assume that Clinton is going to wipe the floor with Trump, and that he is simply going to embarrass himself. Such an assumption is a mistake. Instead, it’s important to recognize, and play, the debate expectations game.

First, the presidential debates are more like a set of mini sales speeches than a true back and forth game of wits. And Donald Trump has decades of experience as a pitch man, in his real estate business, as a reality TV host, a hawker of products from books to steaks, and otherwise. Trump has made countless appearances on various media outlets, including television and radio talk shows, and is thought of by many to be entertaining at least. Given that a political campaign is essentially a sales job, Trump’s sales talk and media experience should help him immensely in the debates.

Second, Trump has some 13 Republican primary debates under his belt, as well as other GOP primary question and answer forums. It is true that Trump looked like a buffoon during many of his debate exchanges — whether trading schoolyard insults with his rivals, dodging questions, flip-flopping on answers, or attacking moderators like Megyn Kelly — and yet Trump still won the GOP primaries. Obviously, many Republican voters felt that Trump was compelling in these debates.

Third, it’s possible for Trump to prepare enough for the debates so that he doesn’t make a complete fool of himself. He can be given a crash course in various subjects, from domestic to foreign policy, and be drilled to give specific or at least punchy answers. After all, the presidential debates largely are not a contest of who knows more about the leaders of various foreign countries, nor are they necessarily about a lot of wonkish facts and figures, both of which are areas in which most people would agree that Hillary Clinton excels. Rather, as candidates like Ronald Reagan have demonstrated, often the debates are about which contestant can most clearly and dynamically express his or her principles, tell a joke and/or zing their opponent. Certainly, Trump has an affinity for the latter, and can come up with or be taught a few hard-hitting one-liners. If he is able to deliver one or two of these at the right moment, he could even “steal” the debate from a stylistic point of view, especially if expectations for Trump remain very low.

Accordingly, Democrats should not dismiss or laugh off Donald Trump’s ability to debate Hillary Clinton. Rather, they should say that Trump has been through many more primary debates this year than Clinton, that he has tons of media experience including television, that he has been campaigning for over a year, he knows or can be briefed on what issues are likely to arise, and that therefore he should be expected to perform well.

Likewise, there is no guarantee that Hillary Clinton will do exceptionally well in each debate against Donald Trump. Sometimes, even the smartest candidates can have an off night, as President Barack Obama did during his first debate with Willard Mitt Romney in 2012. Sometimes, even the sharpest candidates can lack energy, or be over-prepared and come out sounding like a briefing book. Maybe Donald Trump will hurl another insult that will rattle Clinton. And don’t forget the mainstream media moderators, many of whom like to promote fake Republican stories about Clinton.

The best way for any voter of any political persuasion to play the presidential debate expectations game is to downplay your candidate’s abilities, play up their opponent’s strengths, and hope for the best.

Photo by Mike Licht, used under Creative Commons license.

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