Let’s stipulate, right from the start, that debates don’t often irreversibly alter the course of a presidential election. That reality frequently fails to meet the hype. That a candidate who stumbles in the first debate has two more to recover.
The first time they face off. The first time Trump debates one-on-one against a rival. The first time one of the candidates is a woman. The first time the other is a former reality television star.
In the same room, side by side, for 90 minutes. No commercial breaks. A political fanatic’s dream.
Actually, not just political fanatics. The 9 p.m. debate, from Hofstra University in New York, could draw some 100 million viewers, according to some estimates. Perhaps that’s too high — that’s how many people tuned into the most-watched television show ever: the 1983 finale of “M*A*S*H.” It’s near Super Bowl-viewership territory. But the fact that it’s even a possibility is remarkable.
Every broadcast and cable-news network, as well as Univision, Telemundo and PBS, will air the debate, which also will be streamed online on a number of websites. Its only competition will be ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” featuring an intriguing — but hardly must-watch — game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints.
In short, Monday could be a defining night in the presidential campaign. There will be few others left: As of Monday, it will be 43 days until the Nov. 8 election. If ever there was a time for undecided voters to start tuning in, now is it; the candidates will be crafting their responses to appeal to voters on the fence more than anyone else.
Trump and Clinton, opponents in a race that has defied almost every political convention, have spent the past few weeks engaging in the most typical of pre-debate behaviors: lowering expectations for their own performances.
“I do not know which Donald Trump will show up,” Clinton said at a recent New York fundraiser. “Maybe he will try to be presidential and try to convey a gravity that he hasn’t done before. Or will he come in and try to insult and try to score some points?”
“I believe you can prep too much for those things,” Trump told the New York Times last month.
The juxtaposition of the two candidates — the most disliked presidential candidates ever, according to polls — could be stark. Clinton speaks like a wonky lawyer. Trump has a penchant for one-liners. She’s a veteran of the 2008 election and an experienced debater. He’s had 11 years of TV practice on “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” She has struggled to ignite excitement for her candidacy among past supporters of President Barack Obama. He’s gotten into trouble by repeatedly going off his political script.
Clinton heads into the debate with more polls showing a tighter race, though she still has more paths to an Electoral College win than Trump. In Florida, polls show the candidates tied. The election in the state has already begun: The first ballots were mailed to overseas voters Saturday.
The other two debates are scheduled for Oct. 9 in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. Vice-presidential nominees Tim Kaine and Mike Pence will debate only once, on Oct. 4, in Virginia.
Monday’s debate was originally set for Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, but the school withdrew as host in July, citing steep costs, especially for security.
A strong debate doesn’t usually win the presidency. But a bad one can help lose it.
Clinton’s team fears that Trump, a first-time candidate, will be crowned a winner simply if he avoids making any major gaffes. A recent CNN/ORC poll found 53 percent of respondents expect Clinton to do better at the debate, compared to 43 percent who said the same for Trump.
“Getting through a debate and not becoming unhinged is not the standard by which someone should be considered to be ready to be president of the United States,” Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters Friday.
The Democrat’s campaign took the extraordinary step Friday of releasing an 18-page list of Trump’s “debunked lies,” preemptively noting that not fact-checking the Republican would give him an “unfair advantage.”
The warning seemed to stem from an NBC News forum earlier this month in which host Matt Lauer failed to check Trump when he falsely claimed he had opposed the Iraq war. In an earlier interview, FOX News’ Chris Wallace, who is slated to moderate the third debate, had said he was uninterested in calling out candidates’ falsehoods on stage.
Trump has praised that position. He told “Fox and Friends” on Thursday that he expects Monday’s moderator, Lester Holt of NBC News, to let the candidates “argue it out.” Trump had previously — and falsely — accused Holt of being a Democrat. New York voter-registration records show Holt is a longtime Republican.
Holt picked three broad themes: “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America.”
Neither of the leading third-party candidates, Libertarian Gary Johnson or Jill Stein of the Green Party, got enough support in polls to make the debate cut.