Questions Clinton and Trump face heading into the first debate

File: A composite image of U.S. Presidential Candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
File: A composite image of U.S. Presidential Candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be together on stage for the first time on Monday. Both candidates have a lot at stake when they meet at Hofstra University in New York for the first of three presidential debates, with moderator Lester Holt of NBC News.

In a race this close and with as many as 100 million people watching, the debates present the candidates with chances to seize momentum but also risks of potential pitfalls.

Each candidate has different opportunities and challenges in the debates. We have four different questions for Clinton and Trump to think about:


1. What is her goal?

Debate coaches say one of the biggest mistakes a presidential candidate can make is misunderstanding what a presidential debate is and is not. It's not a forum to score policy points (a Clinton strength). Instead, it's a contest of character and demeanor. Everyone knows that Clinton is knowledgeable and competent. Now, she needs to use the debate to show she's also authentic and relatable.

"When I read about those giant debate books they're preparing for her, I cringe and worry. The smaller her debate book, the better off she'll be," said Sam Popkin, who's prepped four Democratic candidates for debates and played Ronald Reagan in Jimmy Carter's debate prep sessions.

Popkin said Clinton needs to come prepared with clean, simple "first sentences" instead of trying to litigate Trump on the facts and details.

Ultimately, debates are performance art. Body language matters. No one remembers what policy points Al Gore made in his first debate against George W. Bush. But they do remember the "lies, sighs, and rolling eyes" that led to the consensus that Gore had lost the encounter.

2. How does she deal with the burden of high expectations?

Clinton is an experienced debater. She's been on the national scene for 40 years. Polls show that voters expect her to "win" the debate. And those high expectations are bad for Clinton because she has the more difficult job on Monday night. The bar for Donald Trump is relatively low — he just has to show he's a plausible president, and not the outrageous, offensive character some voters see on the campaign trail. But she has to prove that she's more honest, trustworthy and likable than most voters think.

Clinton's campaign hasn't even been trying to lower expectations, typically a time honored tradition before debates. Instead they've been pointing out what many Democrats say is a double standard — that Trump, as President Obama said recently, tends to be graded on a curve. Clinton, on the other hand, seems to get the tougher questions and the more intense grilling. Part of that is because she's been in public service so long and he's been a businessman. And part of it is just simply unfair, which brings us to the next question.

3. What about gender?

This will be the first time in history that a male and female candidate have faced off on a presidential debate stage. And like it or not, they will be judged differently. Gender communications research shows that men, when they are aggressive, are received positively. When women are perceived as aggressive, they are received negatively. And that puts Clinton in a bind, because as every political consultant will tell you, "If you're on defense, you're losing."

So Clinton has to stay on offense by showing a command of the issues, being calm, and rebutting Trump's attacks without getting angry or getting into the mud with Trump. As one Republican consultant put it, "if you mud wrestle with a pig, both of you get dirty, but the pig likes it."

The Clinton campaign complained about criticism of the Democratic nominee for not smiling more during the recent commander-in-chief forum on NBC. That may be a double standard, but that's how voters perceive it. Voters like a happy warrior, particularly if the candidate is female.

"Clinton needs to look calm, collected and to be enjoying the debate experience, even if deep down, she is not," said veteran GOP debate coach Brett O'Donnell.

4. Do debates even matter?

Even though debates rarely determine the outcome of presidential elections they do make a difference. You can't win an election, in a debate but you can lose one (See: Gore, Albert or Bush, George H.W.).

They can also certainly add momentum to a race. And in a race this tight, they will matter a lot. After all, as many as 100 million people are expected to watch.


1. Can he exceed low expectations?

In a year when voters are clearly ready for change and disgusted with the status quo, Trump has the advantage of being the outsider. But he has big deficits with voters who think he doesn't have the character and temperament to be president.

On Monday, expectations are low for Trump, but he has one major task — convince enough voters that he is a plausible president.

"If Trump can stand on a debate stage for two hours and not lose his temper and come across as as reasonable person, he'll have a good night," said Alex Conant, who was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's spokesman during the GOP primaries. "And that's a lot easier than Clinton's task — which is to convince people she's not a liar."

Democrats fume that Trump is graded on an curve, and there's no doubt the bar for him is lower than it is for Clinton. As long as he doesn't say something outrageous that's racist or sexist, he wins the night.

But there is one area where expectations for Trump are high — people expect him to be aggressive and to dominate the debate the way he did during the primaries when he eviscerated one opponent after another.

2. How does he face off against a woman?

This could be a tricky one for Trump. He will be doing something no one else has done before: debating the first female candidate for president. Trump will probably try to avoid any obviously sexist put-downs.

One of the few bad moments Trump had in the GOP primary debates was when he disparaged former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's looks. Trump might also be asked about his recent comment that Clinton doesn't have a "presidential look" or his repeated questions about her "stamina."

3. Can he debate the same way he did in the primaries?

Trump has acquired a kind of mythic reputation as a debate performer. After all, he dispatched 16 experienced challengers in the Republican primary. And he does have formidable skills honed by years as a reality TV star. He speaks in simple, clear sentences. He has a commanding physical presence and a "huuuge" personality. And he's shown on occasion (for example, his press conference in Mexico) that he can, in fact, act "presidential."

In the primary, whenever the debates were about personalities or personal records, he was very comfortable. But when he tried to talk in depth about his own policy proposals, he was out of his depth.

Clinton will be ready to exploit those moments to paint Trump as unprepared for the Oval Office. And Trump has never before debated just one opponent.

4. What happens after the debate?

There are three phases to a debate: pre-game expectation setting, the debate itself and the post-game battle to control the perceptions of who won and who lost.

Trump is already working the refs and creating a narrative in case he doesn't do well. Just as he's claimed the only way he can lose the election is if it's stolen from him, he's been saying the debates are rigged against him. He claims NBC's Lester Holt, the first debate's moderator, is biased.

"Look, it's a phony system. Lester is a Democrat. They're all Democrats, Okay? Its a very unfair system," Trump told Bill O'Reilly on Fox News on Monday.

In fact, Holt, who is an experienced journalist and anchors NBC's Nightly News, has been a registered Republican since 2003, according to New York state voter registration documents.

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