The recent history of presidential debates doesn’t bode well for the Republican nominee.
By Jared Keller
Donald Trump. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Donald Trump may have endured the worst week in presidential campaign history. After his dismal performance across from Hillary Clinton at the first presidential debate, the New York Times revealed that the Republican nominee and former businessman had declared an incredible $916 million loss on his 1995 tax returns, a fact that stands in stark contrast to the scolding he’s issued to the American people for not paying their fair share. Add in a humiliating feud with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, revelations over his past cameos in soft-core porn, and an order from the New York attorney general that the Trump Foundation cease fundraising, and it’s unclear if even a campaign as unorthodox as Trump’s can survive such a succession of political body blows.
Naturally, Trump wants to confound those expectations, framing himself as a “comeback kid” during campaign stops as he seeks to rally supporters amid a barrage of dipping polling numbers and negative headlines. “I know how to make a comeback,” he said at a stop in Colorado. “When people make the mistake of underestimating me, that’s when they are in for their biggest surprise.”
History may prove Trump right: Several candidates have staged relatively consistent comebacks in recent years. Polling analysis from Rasmussen Reports released in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s middling first debate in the 2012 election shows that incumbents often struggle during the initial debate before regaining their footing for a second round of rhetorical jousting. But in Trump’s case, a comeback seems unlikely: The business magnate is simply too quixotic a candidate, and his campaign is too rife with dysfunction, for the former reality star to mount a coherent, presidential rebuttal to Clinton.
Let’s review some options. First, Trump can pray that his opponent squanders her early lead. Despite then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter’s dismal performance in the first 1976 presidential debate and subsequent damaging interview in Playboy (where he admitted that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust [and] committed adultery in my heart many times,” per Politico), Gerald Ford handed him a comeback when Ford foolishly declared that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” (Carter’s luck didn’t last through 1980, where his lackluster debate showing helped crater his chances against Ronald Reagan.) The Clinton campaign is unlikely to hand Trump such a victory, but anything’s possible in this election.
With some presence of mind and a bit of self-control, Trump could refine his aura of affability and plain speak into a potent javelin against Clinton.
Second, Trump can actually prepare like a normal candidate and turn the tables on Clinton with a full-court press. We saw damaging overconfidence on display during the 2012 presidential contest, when an aloof and distant Obama, likely overconfident in his public stature, opened himself up to a series of staggering attacks from Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The White House spun Obama’s exhaustingly professorial performance as a lack of preparation, but it didn’t matter: Romney had managed to erase Obama’s four-point lead. Now, Obama got his groove back in time for round two by taking the offensive with a series of painful zingers, like the media-ready assertion that “we haven’t heard from [Romney] any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood.” Obama’s first debate flop was the worst performance by an incumbent in decades, but he still eked out a victory in November.
Third, Trump can go for a moonshot and hope a well-timed morsel of political sass overshadows the rest of the night’s performance. It’s possible that a sharp, newsworthy (read: viral) riposte against Clinton could change the media narrative, regardless of Trump’s overall performance in the second debate. Consider Reagan’s disastrous first round against Walter Mondale, which he topped off with a rambling, incoherent closing statement that left analysts questioning the aging president’s mental acuity. Reagan knew it too: According to Lou Cannon’s President Reagan, “as soon as he left the stage, Reagan confessed to [adviser Stu] Spencer that he had flopped.” But Reagan played for keeps in the second debate with one of the infamous zingers in American political history: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” With some presence of mind and a bit of self-control, Trump could refine his aura of affability and plain speak into a potent javelin against Clinton.
But could Trump actually perform out a similar anticipatory one-two punch, or learn lessons from failed first debates as Reagan and Obama did? Probably not: His debate prep is reportedly a joke, and he can barely stick to a teleprompter, let alone pre-prepared barbs. He simply doesn’t have the discipline. And it’s not as if Trump’s campaign team can help aim and refine the candidate’s verbal salvos. Even without the ongoing internal feuds and random hires that have made the Trump campaign one of the most dysfunctional in recent political history, the campaign’s most die-hard advisers and managers have struggled to tame the candidate’s notoriously unfiltered stream of consciousness—in the real world or the digital one. Insiders told the New York Times in August that Trump was “exhausted, frustrated and still bewildered by fine points of the political process and why his incendiary approach seems to be sputtering.” If the first debate was any indication, Trump lacks the temperament to mount a coherent debate challenge to Clinton, let alone handle the nuclear codes.
A comeback is doubly important for Trump beyond simply trouncing Clinton: A second-debate victory feeds the media narrative of the political comeback (which media outlets naturally love and will cover exhaustively). It’s worth noting that two-thirds of voters tell pollsters like those at the Pew Research Center that debates do help inform their electoral logic, and a growing body of research suggests that televised debates likely shape public opinion more than ever thanks to the ubiquity of the modern digital media environment. Sure, people don’t vote based solely on debates, but winning a rhetorical jousting match, if only in the eyes of the media, may actually benefit Trump—if, that is, he actually applies his media savvy to the uncontrollable environs of the debate stage.
Can Trump actually learn from his (and others’) past mistakes headed into the second debate? We’ll find out on Sunday.