For all the apparent ups and downs in the polls in the past several months, polling has actually been remarkably consistent. Hillary Clinton's average general election polling has generally been between 45 percent and 49 percent, and Donald Trump's average general election polling has generally been 39 and 43 percent.
Many things have happened this campaign that felt like they would be "game changers." And yet, polling has generally been within a 4-point range for both candidates for more than a year, though there have been a few moments where things got very close. Including right now.
Obviously, in a close election, as this one is shaping up to be, a little swing here or there could tip the balance. And perhaps something has shifted in the past week or so. But still, given the stolidity of polling so far despite the months upon months upon months of nonstop campaign coverage, it's hard to imagine what could possibility happen in tonight's debate that would really shift the dynamics of the race, much as the political media likes to hype up these events.
That was the case in 2012. Polling had been remarkably stolid for the entire campaign. There was a little blip after the first debate, but then everything went back to where it was and stayed there.
Often, the narrative around these debates is that now is the time when people who aren't political junkies start to tune in to assess the candidates, that this is when ordinary people are finally paying attention.
This may have been true in 1960, when the campaign was shorter. But not only has Clinton been a declared candidate since last March, and Trump a declared candidate since last June, but both have been well-known public figures for a very long time. Back in March, 85 percent of voters already said they had given "quite a lot of thought" to the presidential election, a record high. Anybody who has been following the election knows these candidates well; they know what they like about them and what they don't like about them. What new information is going to tip the balance?
And the people who are only now tuning in are the most low-information of low-information voters, the type of voters who are most likely not going to vote at all, or if they do vote it will be for some mix of entirely idiosyncratic reasons that neither campaign could possibly bother to prepare for.
Pollster Frank Luntz recently did a survey of undecided voters and identified eight different characteristics of such voters: "They want a unifier—not a divider." "The system is rigged. The process is broken." "They crave more choices." "Character is more important than policy." "Candor counts—a lot." "They want to dream again." "What will be done on Day One?" "They are digital."
This is a meaningless mishmash of platitudes. There is no debate strategy that can simultaneously resonate with all of these key characteristics. If there were some special strategy to win over all the "undecideds," somebody would have figured it out by now. Nobody can appeal to all of this at once.
The other key factor is obviously turnout. Neither candidate is generating much enthusiasm among his or her respective base, and so a good part of both candidates' strategy has been to paint the other candidate as totally unfit for office. Most likely this will be tonight's strategy for both sides.
Republicans want to depress Democratic voters by hitting on Clinton's scandals and health and judgment, while simultaneously energizing Republican voters with the nightmarish possibility of her presidency. Democrats want to depress Republican turnout by defining Trump by his most outlandish comments and associations and temperament, and mobilize fearful Democrats by painting a potential Trump presidency as the biggest threat American democracy has ever faced. But what new strategy does either side have that has yet to be tried? It's hard to imagine the game changer here.
A similar stasis probably exists with Clinton's "likability" and Trump's "presidentialness." What new performance could they deliver that would change beliefs so? And even if they delivered a charming or calm performance of a lifetime, how could they continue that for another month and a half without reverting back to type? People don't change that much once they get out of their 20s.
These candidates have been in many debates before. Yes, they've never gone up against each other. But mostly, their performances have been pretty consistent. They have answers to all the possible questions, and they've already said them, many times. They're seasoned actors on the stage.
Obviously, one could imagine particularly dramatic events that would change minds. But most likely, we'll see more or less the same Trump and Clinton we've seen for months and months. And most likely opinions won't change dramatically.
On the other hand, if we subjected our candidates to an entirely new format, like a crisis simulation, maybe we would learn something new about them. And that really might be a game changer.