With the long-awaited debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton slated for Monday night, anticipation grows. Will Trump throw the kitchen sink at her? Will Hillary bodyslam Trump on policy? Will the moderator, Lester Holt, intervene to challenge the candidates in any serious way?
Here’s what each candidate has to do on Monday night in order to win – and what Holt has to do to keep things under control.
Trump. Hillary has been portraying Trump as an unacceptable alternative. She has to do so, given that her own unfavorable numbers are egregiously high. It’s not enough, therefore, to say that she’s better than Trump – Trump must be placed outside the realm of the reasonable. Trump, meanwhile, has gone into hiding from the press, answering few questions outside of Fox News and sticking to script as much as possible while on the stump. Disciplined Trump has gained ground on Hillary – or rather, made voters feel more comfortable abandoning Hillary for third party candidates. Trump must remain disciplined. That means no outbursts. It means no crazy policy references. It means he must remain calm. Trump has demonstrated that he’s capable of doing that – but he does flare up when he’s hit. Hillary knows that, which is why she’s planning to hit him, and hit him where he hurts the most: the inflation of his wealth, his ignorance, his business failures. If Trump can maintain his cool, he’ll go a long way toward answering public questions about his fitness for office.
Hillary. Hillary has a tougher task: where Trump can control whether he wins or loses, she has to get Trump to make a mistake. That’s because her true vulnerabilities lie in two areas she can’t change: perceptions of her honesty, and perceptions of her warmth. Americans think Hillary is a cold, calculating liar out for herself. She’s not going to be able to change that in one debate – and she hasn’t been able to change that for more than two decades in the public spotlight. So look for Hillary to go on the offensive against Trump. There’s a reason she’s seating billionaire Trump opponent Mark Cuban in the front row. She’ll do all she can to rattle him. If she does, she wins.
Holt. Holt must be feeling pressure from all sides at this point. On the one hand, the rest of the Trump-hating media are pre-emptively slamming Holt for not challenging the candidates enough – in preparation for the debates, they’ve already slurred Matt Lauer for his questions at the commander-in-chief forum (for the record, Lauer’s performance was fine). Meanwhile, Trump is implying that Holt will unfairly target him. Holt’s best choice here: have some clips ready to go on topics that will certainly come up (Comey saying that Hillary had classified material on her server, Trump saying that he supported the war in Iraq), and then hit the candidates with follow-ups.
Both sides will declare their candidate victorious – but in this campaign, both may be victorious, simply because the performance standards are so low. In short, if Trump doesn’t pick up the podium and hurl it into the crowd, he emerges better off; if Hillary doesn’t keel over, and instead speaks policy while showing Trump’s ignorance, she emerges better off. The debates probably won’t be a game-changer in the absence of a gaffe.
But a gaffe could happen.
Which is why we watch.