Here are a few points to help you survive the debate phase of the campaign, which starts Monday and ends October 19:
- They are not debates: At best they are joint press conferences. At worst they illustrate everything that’s wrong with style-over-substance election coverage. Although the candidates may at times engage one another, nobody is keeping score, and they will talk past each other if that’s what their strategies require. The public gets to see the candidates side by side, which can facilitate useful comparisons, but don’t expect them to stay on topic or answer questions if it doesn’t suit them.
- Watch for nonverbal communication: Except for those rare viral moments, we won’t remember much of what’s said on the debate stage. But we will internalize how it was communicated, and we may not be fully conscious of our reactions. Clinton is not a natural orator but she can be effective in small group settings, and she will need to have those interpersonal skills working for her. Communicating in an easy, relatable manner is the best way for her to address her significant trust issues and “surpass expectations” with a press corps expecting her to come across as wonkish and aloof. Trump, on the other hand, has a showman’s sense of the moment but lacks self-control. He will certainly be advised to modulate his presentation to look respectable, but he will have to maintain that posture for a very long time.
- Gender will be an ever-present subtext: As the first female major party nominee, Clinton will be confronting deeply engrained biases about how women communicate strength and competence. She will not have the latitude to go after Donald Trump the way Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden would, will almost certainly have to suffer through commentary about her clothing choices, and may face a replay of the Matt Lauer commander-in-chief interview where she was repeatedly interrupted. At the same time, Trump will have to refrain from being overly aggressive to avoid coming across as hostile. In a 2000 senate debate, Clinton’s male opponent left the podium and walked into her space on the debate stage. She was effectively elected at that point.
- Hillary faces a challenge: You know your opponent has no policy knowledge. You know he feels no kinship with the truth. How do you handle him? What do you do if the moderator does not force Trump to be specific or hold him to account when he makes things up? Do you do it? Her best strategy may be to slowly pick at Trump’s inflated ego with calculated put-downs and look for opportunities to trap him with his own words. When Trump is in a corner he will escalate his rhetoric rather than retreat and it can get him into trouble. But Hillary can’t seem overbearing or she will lose the audience’s sympathy, and that’s a fine line to walk.
- Trump faces a bigger challenge: He knows he has no policy knowledge and there’s no place to hide. Yes, the bar is so low that it’s glued to the floor, but Trump still may not be able to surpass it. During the primary debates, Trump often disappeared for long stretches when the subject turned to policy specifics and would emerge only to exert dominance over his many opponents or to offer platitudes. This time, he has to go one-on-one against a knowledgeable opponent and will have a lot of air time to fill. On the merits, Trump doesn’t deserve to be on the same stage as Hillary Clinton and at some level he must recognize it. He has to make sure he doesn’t let that eat away at his fragile ego, especially if Hillary spends the evening trying to deflate it.
- It will be a circus: Even in a normal year the campaigns and media are in full carnival mode because debates attract large audiences. Expect that to be heightened this year as Trump turns the debates into must-see episodes of his reality TV show. There will be countdown clocks, saturation cable TV coverage, focus groups of undecided voters (hint: if they haven’t figured it out by now then nothing is going to help them), and post debate analysis with surrogates spinning reporters and every variety of expert dissecting what happened. Try to ignore as much of this as you can and I promise you will sleep better. We may end up hoping for a repeat of the Ford-Carter debate where a capacitor failure cut the audio feed and the candidates stared at the cameras in silence for half an hour.
- It probably won’t matter: Debates can cause momentary ripples in public opinion but if history is a guide there is little evidence they can turn an election. So try not to sweat whatever polling swings we may see next week and remember it will all be over in a month.