Eric Davis: Presidential debate sets context

Monday night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be the most important event of the presidential campaign to date. Viewers’ reactions to this debate, framed by and formed by media coverage and the candidates’ spin, will set the context for the six weeks to Election Day.
The debate will pose challenges for Clinton, for Trump, and for the moderator, Lester Holt of NBC News. Clinton must show her human side, to go along with her expertise on policy. She needs to give voters still on the fence, or soft supporters of Trump, reasons why she would be a safe pair of hands in the White House, especially on foreign policy, as well as a president concerned with improving day-to-day conditions for middle-class Americans.
She also needs to respond effectively to the allegations about her using a private email server, not disclosing information about her health earlier this month, and the relationships between Clinton Foundation donors and the State Department when she was Secretary of State.
Polls indicate that voters consider Clinton more qualified to serve as president than Trump, even though her approval ratings are as low as his. Clinton must use the debate to get voters to focus on the candidates’ competence and temperament, by pointing out Trump’s history of changing his position on a multitude of issues, or by appealing to the common decency of Americans against Trump’s rhetoric.
Trump needs to convince undecided voters, and soft Clinton supporters, that he is qualified to be president and that his election would not present unwarranted risks in either domestic or international affairs. To do this, Trump needs to come across as thoughtful and informed about policy in a setting in which he cannot use a teleprompter to read a speech, and cannot rely on aides in the room to step in for him.
Trump must tread a fine line between arousing his base supporters to come out and vote, but not making the sort of obviously false, extreme, racist or sexist statements that will offend those voters he needs — for example, college-educated white women — to win key states such as Florida and Ohio. Trump’s style could generate a pro-Clinton backlash instead. However, Trump’s entire campaign is based on going outside the norms of public discourse, so the sort of reasoned analysis I and other pundits offer may be completely irrelevant to his campaign.
Clinton has far more experience with one-on-one debates than Trump. She debated Barack Obama several times in 2008 when they were both seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, and she had several one-on-one debates with Bernie Sanders in the later stages of this year’s Democratic primary contest. By all accounts, Clinton is preparing intensely for the debate, mastering her briefing notes on policy and rehearsing in a debate setting with staffers or politicians portraying Trump at his most provocative.
Clinton is the likely beneficiary of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green candidate Jill Stein not reaching the threshold of 15 percent in national polls needed to qualify for the debate. She will not have to worry, at least during the debate, about losing support to the third-party candidates from voters who dislike both her and Trump.
Trump never debated with a single opponent during this year’s primaries. Most of his debates were with a large field of candidates, a format he exploited to make himself the center of attention on the stage and news coverage afterward. Trump is apparently not rehearsing as intensely as Clinton. However, this could be “disinformation” from the Trump campaign. It might also indicate that his strategy is to personalize the debate, to talk much more about Hillary Clinton’s failings than what he would do as president.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

Share this story:

More News
US Probation Office Uncategorized

US Probation Office Request for Proposals

US Probation Office 2×1.5 062024 RFP

Middlebury American Legion Uncategorized

Middlebury American Legion Annual Meeting

Middlebury American Legion 062024 1×1.5 Annual Meeting

Sports Uncategorized

MAV girls’ lax nets two triumphs

The Mount Abraham-Vergennes cooperative girls’ lacrosse team moved over .500 with a pair o … (read more)

Share this story: