Throw away your images of presidential debates — the earnest exchanges over foreign policy and the economy, the canned laugh lines and scripted expressions of scorn, even the choreographed bonhomie at the beginning and end of these televised sessions. Monday night’s confrontation will reflect the disruptive forces in politics that each nominee personifies.
As a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton presents a different kind of profile than anything Americans have seen since presidential debates began in 1960. As an insurgent with no political experience and a freewheeling style, Donald Trump eschews preparation but comes armed with the sort of zingers that have no precedent in the 30 presidential debates that have set Americans’ expectations for these affairs.
“In this debate, each of the candidates has to behave like a boxer, trying to get the other one out of his or her game,” says Michael Sovern, the former Columbia University president who played Ronald Reagan in practice debates with Walter F. Mondale in 1984, when the former vice president ran against the 40th president. “This calls for different kinds of behavior. They’ll look to unsettle the adversary. You wouldn’t normally expect Fritz Mondale to unsettle Ronald Reagan or vice versa. We were playing in a pussycat league back then. This is a hardball league this time.”
A hardball league — where the hard and fast rules no longer apply. One of the candidates will prepare feverishly, the other will not. One risks sounding scripted in an event that prizes spontaneity, the other risks sounding casual in an event that tests his presidential demeanor. One could err by allowing her rival to dominate the session the way he did against his Republican rivals, the other could err by appearing domineering or patronizing to a woman.
And both could err by seeming inauthentic — too deliberately informal for her, too artificial and stilted for him. “You have to be yourself and that’s harder than you think in a presidential debate,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who played Barack Obama in practice debates for the last two Republican nominees, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. “Knowing every detail of every policy is less important than making people comfortable with you.”
A year’s worth of strategic thinking gets distilled into 90 minutes in a presidential debate — a high-stakes confrontation before an entire nation that is primed, since the 1960 debates between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, to examine every nuance. In their first debate, Kennedy seemed confident and polished, Nixon uneasy and perspiring.
“Their appearance was very important,” recalled Sander Vanocur, the former NBC newsman who was a questioner in the 1960 debates. “On stage, we couldn’t really tell what Nixon looked like on television. But we knew he seemed to be a little more on edge than Kennedy.”
Americans had never seen anything like that 1960 debate; the only near precedent was the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but they were for a Senate seat in Illinois rather than for the presidency; they consisted of alternating speeches of 60, then 90 and finally 30 minutes; and the candidates appeared before audiences scattered around the state rather than being broadcast on television. Illinois residents reviewed transcripts of the exchanges, but there were no cable TV shows or tweets to air highlights or focus on stumbles or factual errors.
Both men were deeply prepared. So, too, have been participants of modern debates, with candidates often retreating to rehearse for days before they took place. Clinton has been preparing for weeks, Trump hardly at all — though in recent days he has sent supporters emails about “the BIGGEST night of our campaign,” adding, “As your champion, I need to know what you want me to fight for on that stage. I want you to be confident that I defend the issues you care about. I want to make you proud, Friend.”
Even so, Trump has indicated he will stick with his freewheeling debate style rather than steep himself in preparation. The difference in approach will be immediately evident Monday.
Clinton likely will arrive with heaps of statistics and refined policy points that she can employ to her advantage — or that can make her seem pedantic at an event designed to reveal personality and character. Trump’s cavalier preparation might make him seem authentic — or unprepared for perhaps the most demanding job in the world.
“Preparation is almost mandatory,” said Thomas Foley, the president of Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania, and a former debate coach at Bates College and Yale University. “The challenge of a debate is how to select the information you are going to convey. I don’t think you can wing it. You have to think about what in your own views is important and how you can line up those postulates. You also have to think about what you and your opposition disagree on, and how you can incisively analyze that in 90 seconds.”
Political scientists have found that debates seldom change minds; those who watch are more like sports fans than undecided voters, rooting for their team and coming down afterward pretty much where they started. But the audience for these debates may be so much bigger than usual, and the candidates so much a departure from form that historical examples may not apply.
“The question is whether Trump is graded on a curve,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist. “If people expect Clinton to wipe the floor with Trump and he avoids disastrous errors, people may think he won.” Clinton also will be graded on a curve; if she comes out unscathed after a Trump verbal attack, people may believe she won.
“Presidential debates are the best way people can actually learn something important about the candidates,” Mondale said in an interview. “Most of what they hear otherwise is spin and bounce. History tells us these debates can be revealing.”
He knows this firsthand. In his second debate with Reagan, the 73-year-old president dismissed concerns about his age with a quip about the relative youth and inexperience of Mondale, then 56. “He answered what people were worried about — whether he could still function,” Mondale said. “We realized then that the campaign was over.”
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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