In the famous Pink Panther movies a clueless Inspector Clouseau tells his Chinese house servant Cato Fong to always “expect the unexpected.”
That might be good advice for Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate prepares for the first of three presidential debates against her unpredictable Republican rival, Donald Trump.
With a record 100 million viewers predicted to tune in Monday night, when the candidates debate at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, the stakes have perhaps never been higher.
The question on everybody’s mind is whether the debates will make a difference in the campaign, and if so, who is more likely to benefit? “You walk into a Denny’s or a beauty parlor and people are talking about it,” said veteran pollster John Zogby.
Analysts like to say that presidential debates don’t count as much as people think, especially this year, with an especially polarized electorate. “There’s not as many swing voters out there,” said Geoffrey Skelley with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
But the tightness of the race makes the debates potentially more decisive, especially given the huge contrast in style between the brash, plain-speaking Trump, and more wonkish Clinton.
“These debates are extra important because you have two candidates who are locked into a draw,” said Zogby. With both candidates stuck in the low to mid-40s “neither of them has a winning strategy yet to make it over the top,” he added.
The candidates will try to appeal both to their bases and to independents. Although independent voters now make up a larger share of the electorate, researchers question how neutral they really are. A Pew study found 92-94 percent of voters are either solid members of one party or leaning one way.
The real independents are so disengaged from the political process they "may not even be watching,” added Skelley.
The two person format, allowing for more time to give reasoned responses and lay out policy would appear to favor Clinton, the more experienced politician with a better grasp of the issues.
Clinton also has a good debate record and she has been in head-to-head debates before. “But then again she has never debated anyone like Trump before,” said Skelley.
Trump's spontaneous tongue-lashing took his primary opponents by surprise. This time it’s different. “Now he’s a known quantity,” said Steven Schale, a former 2012 Obama campaign staffer who is sitting this election out.
Clinton aides says she is preparing for two scenarios in her debate preparations this week: "One in which Trump is measured and serious, and another in which he is freewheeling and makes inflammatory personal attacks," according to Reuters.
“These are the kind of moments she (Clinton) is very good at,” said Schale, recalling her impressive performance in 2015 during a marathon 11-hour grilling by the Republican-led congressional committee looking into the fatal storming of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“Hillary has all the advantages,” agreed Fernand Amandi, a pollster with Bendixen & Amandi International, who conduct polls for Univision. “Trump lacks the fundamentals for policy debates,” he added.
Challenges facing each candidate
For Clinton the debate is a chance to reset her flagging campaign. The key to the debates is making sure that your voters are energized by your performance, experts say. After her recent slump in the polls the challenge for Clinton is to restore her potential with Democratic leaning voters. “She has to get her voters out there and bridge the enthusiasm gap,” said Skelley.
“How does Clinton come off as likeable or credible or the wave of the future?” said Zogby. “She has a real deficit with younger voters,” especially when compared to President Barack Obama or her former rival in the primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, he added. “She can be likeable. I have seen her flip pancakes and work a small room,” he recalled.
The bar is a bit lower for Trump, most analysts seem to agree.
“All he has to do is no harm, just end up standing at the end of the evening," said Zogby. "But it would be useful if he could show some substance,” he added.
“Trump has one challenge to accomplish. He needs to come out of the debate convincing enough Americans that he’s up to the job,” said Schale. “So many people don’t think so. He has to pass the basic ‘Can he be President’ test,'” he added.
Obeying the rules
“It will be interesting to see how much either of them follows the rules,” said Schale, noting that Trump interjected a lot during the primary debates, often belittling his rivals.
Trump has already complained about the moderators, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Monday’s debate will be hosted by Lester Holt, the no-nonsense NBC Nightly News anchor.
Trump told Fox News this week: “Look, it's a phony system. Lester is a Democrat. I mean, they are all Democrats. Okay? It's a very unfair system." In fact, public records show that Holt has been a registered Republican in New York state since 2003.
If past debates are anything to go by Trump may have trouble resisting the risky urge to attack the woman he has dubbed "Crooked Hillary."
“The primary debates show you can absolutely draw Trump into a stupid fight,” said Schale.
Even so, Trump’s rivals have learned over the last 18 months it‘s dangerous to underestimate him. So far the real estate mogul and reality show host has risen to every challenge in the campaign, albeit in unorthodox ways.
“He has anti-venom running in his veins,” says Amandi. “He’s been able to turn what would be career-ending gaffes for other politicians into a daily routine that only seem to strengthen his campaign rather than kill it off,” he added.
Analysts say viewers shouldn't pay too much attention to substance. “Debates are not about the debate, it’s about the moments that capture the essence,” said Schale.
There are numerous examples of past debate moments:
- 1976: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," Gerald Ford told a bemused audience, making his rival Jimmy Carter appear to have a better grasp of foreign policy..
- 1992: George H. Bush looked at his watch, making him look bored and detached from viewers, in sharp contrast to the empathy of his rival, Bill Clinton.
- 2000: Al Gore’s repeated loud sighs made him appear rude and condescending to George W. Bush.
- 2012: Mitt Romney advocated cutting a public broadcasting subsidy to eliminate Sesame Street and Big Bird. The Obama campaign ran an ad right after: “Mitt Romney’s biggest enemy is Big Bird.”