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Debate 2016: Get Used to Disappointment

The chances of tonight’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump actually changing the election much are pretty small.

By Seth Masket


(Photo: DSK/AFP/Getty Images)

Tonight, of course, is the first general election presidential debate of the 2016 cycle, and political observers are waiting with baited breath to see what might happen. We’ve never seen a matchup like Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump before, and this event should provide for great entertainment. The chances of it actually changing the election much, however, are pretty small.

James Fallows’ debate preview, as in other elections years, is invaluable. In particular, he reminds us what’s different about the debates compared to what these candidates have dealt with previously. For one thing, as we saw in the Republican primary debates, Trump enjoys playing to a raucous crowd, which will be silent tonight. He was good at drawing attention to himself on a crowded dais when he wanted to, but he also tended to go quiet for a while when conversations became more substantive. We’ve not seen him in a one-on-one debate, in which he really needs to be on his game for 90 straight minutes.

That format is one in which Clinton has excelled in both the 2008 and 2016 cycles. In multiple debates with Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, Clinton was reliably skilled, in command of the facts, and persuasive. She just doesn’t make many mistakes in this kind of engagement. But, and not to put too fine a point on it, debating Obama and Sanders isn’t necessarily great training for debating Trump. Not only has she largely only debated within her own party, but she’s debated against thoughtful, well-prepared men who were eager not to appear as sexists or liars. This probably doesn’t describe the opponent she’ll face tonight.

Generally, debates are only game-changers if they force us to change our perceptions of the candidates.

All of this makes for a debate dynamic that’s actually quite difficult to predict. So it will be interesting to see how things play out. But just how might it actually affect the presidential race?

Generally, debates are only game-changers if they force us to change our perceptions of the candidates. Voters in 2012 didn’t know too much about Mitt Romney and largely expected Obama to be a strong debater, so the former’s strong performance at the first debate and Obama’s weak showing actually moved the needle a bit. Similarly, in 1980, Ronald Reagan had a reputation as a bit of a substance-free hothead. His solid debate performance with Jimmy Carter, however, removed many voter doubts about him and moved the election in the Republican direction.

There aren’t many election cycles, however, in which we see much of an effect from debates. In large part, this is because candidates behave as we expect them to. In this year’s contest, it’s also because these candidates are very well known. Trump and Clinton have been in the public eye since before the Internet. The odds of either of them behaving in a way that contradicts what we already know about them are pretty remote.

Relatedly, as Jennifer Victor notes, support for the candidates, particularly Trump, is already pretty hard-baked. He’s unlikely to gain many followers as a result of his performance, but he’s unlikely to lose many, either.

Yet over at Slate’s Political Gabfest, John Dickerson reminds us that quite a few voters will not be watching the debate as it airs, but will depend upon news coverage of it, which will largely boil down to a few key moments. He offered some suggestions as to how Trump could exploit that feature to change voters’ perceptions:

You should do all the things that people said you have not done. Be self-deprecating, be generous. Show some set of qualities that nobody’s ever associated with you throughout this entire campaign. And if you show them, you will get 100 million people watching, and all the coverage will be about that…. Do that, and you’ll get several days of: “Oh my gosh, look, he can restrain his impulses. He can fulfill the role that’s being asked of him. And if he can do that in a debate, he can do that in the presidency.”

That could change the campaign somewhat. But it’s dependent upon Trump’s own discipline as a campaigner, something that’s not really been detected in abundance. Just as that scenario could benefit him, so a lapse into misogynistic slurs could hurt him, and we know he’s prone to that.

As we watch tonight, we should note those moments where the candidates defy expectations. But we should also be mindful that the candidates’ reputations as debaters are well-earned.