The first presidential debate of 2016 is finally here. After months of insults, innuendos, bickering and boasting, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will stand feet apart and square off in a debate that is expected to crush previous viewership records.
The first of three presidential debates will take place tonight at Hofstra University. The debate, moderated by NBC’s Lester Holt, begins at 9 p.m. and airs on CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC, as well as several other cable channels. Here are five things to watch for during tonight’s debate:
1. How will the debate be moderated?
Holt has an enormous task ahead of him as he’ll try to moderate tonight’s debate. Trump and Clinton have never debated face-to-face before, and Holt will have to control the pace and tempo while still holding the candidates to the issues and the truth. Will Holt allow the candidates to have time and space to make their points, or will he interject and cut off either candidate when they are spewing falsehoods?
Trump has gotten away with making statements contrary to the facts, like saying he opposed the U.S. invasion into Iraq or that Clinton started the “birther” movement. Clinton made questionable statements too, but to a much lesser extent. Politico reported that television networks will not do on-screen fact checking, and it will be on Holt to listen to Trump and Clinton and then challenge them when their statements don’t align with the facts.
2. What is Clinton’s strategy?
Clinton has made her presidential campaign about attacking Trump, and she will be able to dissect and criticize Trump’s positions at tonight’s debate. Trump, however, has rewritten every rule in the presidential campaign rule book, and he might give Clinton a debate she wasn’t expecting. Clinton might choose to play the attack dog and hammer Trump all night, or she might choose to let Trump dig his own grave.
Clinton has vigorously prepared for tonight’s debate, and her strategy will be clear from the moment the first question is asked.
3. Will Trump allow Clinton to get under his skin?
Clinton has reportedly been working with the ghostwriter of the “Art of the Deal” to figure out how to unnerve Trump, and she knows that making Trump look aggravated and flustered is the easiest way to score a win. Trump, too, has been preparing for tonight’s debate, and he knows that this will be one part of the Clinton debate strategy.
Trump hasn’t responded to criticism well during this campaign and, while he can prepare all he wants, nobody knows how Trump will react when Clinton is in his face and going after him. Clinton will attempt to goad Trump into a costly mistake, and Trump will have to stay disciplined and not allow Clinton to get under his skin.
4. Who wins the expectations game?
The bar is set pretty low for Trump going into tonight’s presidential debate. Trump is expected to be shaky on policy specifics and launch demeaning attacks, and he can win the expectations game if he appears serious and disciplined. Conversely, Clinton is expected to look like the better debater and have a mastery over policy specifics. Clinton can easily win the policy discussion but lose the debate, and the expectations game, if she stumbles and has a less-than-stellar performance.
There is a double-standard. Trump only has to look serious and show a moderate grasp of policy to have a “good” performance, while Clinton has no room for error and has to dismantle Trump to have a “good” performance of her own. The media will set the bar for both candidates, and they will frame the narrative for which candidate exceeded expectations in 2016’s first presidential debate.
5. Who will the debate be about, and will the debate be about the issues?
Trump wants to make the debate about Clinton, and Clinton wants to make the debate about Trump. Both candidates have extraordinarily high negative ratings, and they do better when they are attacking the other and not defending themselves. The “winner” of tonight’s debate will be whoever successfully makes tonight about their opponent’s record, however, it is less clear if this debate will stick to the issues or devolve into personal attacks.
Trump and Clinton are both guilty of hurling insults and avoiding the issues. There are only so many times that Clinton can besmirch Trump by calling him a “bigot” before the audience tunes out. Equally, Trump cannot attack Clinton on personal grounds and expect a victory tonight. Each candidate would do well to make the debate about their opponent, and focus on their opponent’s record rather than relegating to insults and personal attacks.
Clinton and Trump will have a captive audience for tonight’s first presidential debate. Clinton will be looking to score a victory in the first out of three presidential debates. Trump, on the other hand, will look to defy expectations. Who knows? Maybe Trump will think about writing the “Art of the Debate” after tonight is settled and finished.