The stakes are high for Monday's first televised presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Millions of Americans will tune in to listen to the candidates and observe how they react to, and interact with, each other. Many will be looking to see what type of zingers will come out of Trump's mouth; however, the stakes are arguably higher for Clinton than they are for Trump.
Both of these candidates are known quantities with extraordinary fame, who have been in public life for decades. The fact that they're both well known may reduce the impact the debates have on the election, because there is not much room for voters to learn or be persuaded. However, there are unique characteristics of this campaign that raise the stakes for debate performances and make them more likely to affect the election. Moreover, performance in the first debate may be more important than the following two debates in October.
In many ways the debate will be Donald Trump's show, because he has proven himself during this campaign to be a media genius. He knows how to command attention, deflect piercing questions, and attack his opponent in ways that tend to both entertain and awe. And, yes, he means to be shocking.
But the star of the show on Monday will likely be Hillary Clinton. This is because, more than Trump, she has the opportunity to persuade skeptical voters that she is an acceptable alternative. We have yet to see Donald Trump's polling numbers go above about 46 percent. This may not be a hard ceiling, but there are clearly a number of Republicans who are reluctant to support him. But many of these voters are also not comfortable supporting Clinton.
Clinton has a better shot at winning these voters' votes than Trump does because of her experience and professionalism. Clinton's liability is trustworthiness. But if she could convince traditional, establishment Republicans, who cringe at casting a vote for a TV star who has never held elected office and has arguably not taken the job of president seriously, that she is "good enough," then she may win their support.
The debate Monday night will be a study of contrasts. Where Trump is bombastic, Clinton will be studied. Clinton is known to be a policy wonk and in some ways a classic student overachiever. She will have polished answers to questions of policy, where Trump is likely to be less thoughtful and more deflective.
But it may not be all fireworks and showmanship for Trump, because his base of supporters will not defect. He will not lose supporters if he presents himself as more serious. His primary chance for increasing his level of support is to appear more moderate and prepared. This helps explain why he changed his position on whether President Obama was born in the US. He is trying to expand his base of support and appeal to moderate voters.
In a sense, Clinton will be trying to do the same thing, but the way I see it, the stakes are higher for her. If she cannot persuade disaffected Republicans to support her, despite ideological differences, then her chances at winning the election are quite a bit narrower. Really, it's her debate to win or lose, even though many voters will be tuning in to see the Donald Trump Show.
Clinton's job on Monday night is a difficult one. She needs to keep her Democratic base excited and motivated while still appealing to disgruntled moderates and frustrated Republican voters who are perhaps looking for a reason to find her to be an acceptable alternative. This is a difficult needle to thread, and we should expect her responses to include platitudes toward both of these sets of voters.
It's safe to say that Monday's event will be a spectacle and the candidates' performances will be meaningful.