Everyone loves a great show; tonight, we are sure to get one.
In what is the most highly awaited political event in modern history, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off Monday evening in the first presidential debate from Long Island’s Hofstra University hosted by Lester Holt of NBC News.
However, with the bar set exceedingly high for Clinton (and low, in the case of Trump), it begs an obvious question: could Trump actually win this thing?
Many anticipate the television audience to rival that of a Super Bowl — more than 100 million people — perhaps making it one of the most-watched shows of the year, if not of all time.
And with the all-bets-are-off nature of the 2016 race, certain things could tip the balance to Trump.
“According to the numbers, the debates have done little to change the fundamental structure of recent presidential races,” writes Dante Chinni of NBC News. Comparing pre-debate polling with final election results for every election since 1992, the debate may have made a serious difference in only a single campaign — 2000.
Although Democrat Al Gore did technically get more of the popular vote than his Republican opponent, George W. Bush, the core layout of the polling remained the same through Election Day, giving post-debate polls a 6-for-6 streak.
Of course, debates are remembered more for individual moments, rather than the effect they have on the electorate. In 1988, Michael Dukakis responded coolly to a question about the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. Gore famously sighed during his debate with Bush, while George H.W. Bush appeared bored and was caught checking his watch during the debate with Bill Clinton in 1992.
None of these isolated incidents had any overall impact on the nature of the race, despite the high-stakes character of the debates themselves.
That said, 2016 is an election like no other — a bitter, contentious race between Clinton and Trump, two candidates widely disliked by a majority of the public. With Trump, his basic competency has been questioned; for Clinton, it is her trustworthiness and apparent lack of honesty.
So it is entirely possible tonight’s event could accomplish what no other debate has done in history.
And why shouldn’t it, particularly with the basement-bottom-level expectations set for Trump going into the debate?
“Trump can win this debate by not losing it,” writes Matt Mackowiak of the Observer. “This will require discipline, self-control, patience and calm. These are not his natural strengths.”
Trump required serious, thoughtful debate prep, something Mackowiak says he appeared to have been “wholly unwilling to commit to.” It could prove to be a fatal miscalculation for the Trump campaign, which has so far relied heavily on his status as a political outsider.
“Trump likes to call himself a counterpuncher,” Mackowiak says. “But not every jab needs to be countered. I expect Hillary to jab and uppercut constantly. Her team appears to believe the only way she can win the debate is by invalidating Trump as a legitimate choice.”
This approach does not come without risk: a constant attack could leave Clinton looking shrill, harsh and unlikable, particularly in a debate where viewers judge candidates on likability.
As we have seen before, nonverbal communications, facial expressions and emotions play a big part in how opponents are viewed — favorable or not. And since Clinton has struggled with her likability, she will need to address what many see is her biggest weakness in tonight’s performance.
No matter what happens onstage in Hempstead, New York, Trump will have the most to gain.
“Eight out of 10 times, the non-incumbent party’s candidate — that’s Trump this year — gained in the polls after the first debate,” writes Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight.com. “That includes each of the last five times.”
Enten suggests several theories to explain this, such as incumbent presidents having four years to grow unaccustomed to direct challenge, thereby performing poorly; or that an opponent is given a level playing field with a sitting president. But in 2016, neither of those theories apply.
As for Trump, he is currently performing poorly with self-identified Republicans versus what Clinton gets with Democrats. Enten says that is what makes Trump “lower-hanging fruit” than Clinton, as more Republican voters will “come home” after seeing the two candidates in action.
Also, Enten echoes the theme that even with all the sound and fury surrounding the first presidential debate, they really don’t move the needle that much.
That said, some factors could play a role in swinging polls more than usual. The prevalence of social media in 2016, Enten says, could help cement the narrative quickly, making a good debate performance more important than ever.
Another thing is the larger-than-normal group of voters who are either undecided or considering a third-party challenge. This pool of the electorate is more likely to offer gains to either of the major parties post-debate.
“Even in 1980,” Enten says, “when Reagan was deemed to have crushed Carter in their lone debate, Carter actually gained support after their meeting. Reagan simply gained more.”
This same scenario could play out in Trump’s favor, since third-party candidate Gary Johnson did not meet the requirements for inclusion on the debate stage.
Barring an “October surprise,” a somewhat decent performance by Trump Monday night — with no major gaffe or insulting sound bite — could just be enough to move polls slightly in his favor over the next week, which (history has proved) is a good predictor of the final standings in November.
In other words, Trump has a decent chance of winning tonight.