Four Things To Watch For In Tonight's Presidential Debate

10/19/2016 01:13 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2016
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) tangle at the second debate on October 9th, 2016 at Washingt
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Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) tangle at the second debate on October 9th, 2016 at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri

Tonight Presidential main party candidates Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) meet in Las Vegas, for their third and final debate. This is fitting, as Las Vegas has been the site for many a prizefight. And that’s exactly what this will be. A fight.

The last debate was town-hall style donnybrook that had the spectre of the leak of Donald Trump’s extremely vulgar and sexually predatory comments about women in 2005, looming over it. Overall at least 14 women have accused Trump of sexually assaulting them in a similar manner to what he described in the leaked audio.

Trump’s response? A terse, non-contrite Facebook video, that came off as more of a hostage video than a mea culpa (The “I was sort of bad but Bill Clinton is worse” approach is not an effective strategy for conveying remorse). Trump quickly followed up with a hastily put together press conference of three women that accused Bill Clinton of rape and another rape victim whose rapist was defended by Hillary Clinton. Clinton was later recorded laughing about her client passing the polygraph, which “forever destroyed her faith in polygraphs.” The rapist was acquitted. Trump and the women at the press conference presented this as evidence of Hillary’s callousness towards women and her unfitness for the Presidency. It didn’t gain much traction.

Clinton’s got her own problems though. WikiLeaks confirmed what many suspected all along: that there are serious inconsistencies with Clinton’s public and private positions on many key issues. It also revealed unprecedented coordination between the White House and the Clinton camp concerning the ongoing FBI investigation. Moreover, it made clear that the Clinton camp don’t seem like the kind of people you’d want to have dinner with without securing the services of a food tester.

Because of Trump’s implosion and the parade of women accusing Trump of sexual assault, Clinton’s Wikileaks reveals never saw the full light of the media glare. Hillary Clinton really should send a fruit basket to Trump every single day until the close of this election to thank him for serving as her human shield against the WikiLeaks fallout.

As usual, Trump’s camp was behind the eighth ball in crisis management. Only now, have his handlers come up with any real substantive plan for pushback. On Monday night, Melania Trump, Trump’s wife and reticent campaign surrogate did a sit-down with Anderson Cooper of CNN to refute the public image of her husband as a predatory sex offender. Willing campaign surrogate, daughter Ivanka Trump finally issued a statement about the accusations against her father. These image “patch jobs” come more than a week after the audio was released lessening their effectiveness. The image of Trump as sexual predator is baked in with everyone who is not his base. If independents/undecideds decide to for him is it not because they don’t believe the accusations, it is in spite of the accusations. That’s certainly not a winning strategy to get out the vote.

It is against this backdrop that these two take the stage tonight for the third and final debate of this election cycle. It’s hard to imagine a more politically and personally tense atmosphere. Here are four things to look for in tonight’s debate:

1. Trump will employ a scorched Earth approach

They say a wounded dog is a dangerous dog. Philosopher Baltasar Gracián once said, “Never contend with a man that has nothing to lose.” Trump is both. Trump is severely wounded and if the polls are correct, losing badly after the release of the damning audio. Therefore, he will come out fighting and most likely play very dirty and personal going for the jugular on Clinton’s marriage, and her integrity.

Since Trump is now, as he put it, “unshackled” (was he holding back before?!) he will hammer home the notion of the election as “rigged,” using the DNC’s scuppering of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, perceived media bias and the Wikileaks dumps as proof that Clinton and her camp are bad for the country. But because of Trump’s meandering and somewhat off-putting communication style, his points will be hard to follow thus not having as much impact as they could. Clinton should be fine here if she can withstand Trump’s verbal blitzkrieg. And given Clinton’s solid performances in the previous two debates there’s no reason to believe that she won’t be able to.

2. Clinton will be poised and presidential but still won’t be able to articulate a clear answer addressing the content of the Wikileaks emails.

Whenever a Wikileaks drop reveals impropriety from someone in the Clinton camp (and they have been legion), the stock answer is to refuse to address the content of the leaks and pivot to “Russian interference” in American Presidential politics. That might have worked at first but because there are so many emails being released, that response is wearing thin.

The good news for Hillary is that the most damaging emails so far, don’t feature her direct participation. The most damaging and salacious emails are between her staff and other people in her orbit. The bad news is the content of the emails confirms what has been baked in about Clinton already, that she and her people are gaming the system.

Clinton needs to have a clear answer on this, not just an immediate pivot to Russia. She’s got to address the content even if just to say something fleeting about the embarrassing and troubling nature of some of the emails. My guess, however, is that she pivots.

3. “Scandal Du Jour”: The Unknown

At the time of this writing news broke that Robert Creamer, husband of Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D) and other Democratic operatives who were caught on video discussing nefarious methods for deliberately fomenting violence at Trump rallies, were just fired by the DNC. Methods discussed include hiring homeless people, mentally ill people and bussing people in solely for the purpose of fomenting violence. It should be noted that the filmmaker, James O’Keefe, has been known in the past for “creative editing’ to advance his political agenda.

This latest “scandal du jour” feeds into Trump’s claim that the system is rigged against him. And this might resonate with some undecideds unless…there is another scandal that replaces it today. And with this scandal-riddled election that is entirely possible.

Which big scandal breaks today, if any? This is the big unknown. But if it does, look for it to feature somewhere in this debate.

4. Moderator Chris Wallace will lose control at times

This debate will mark the first time that Fox News journalist will be moderating a general election debate. And not everyone is happy. The progressive action group, Media Matters for America, led by David Brock, former Clinton campaign team advisor, wrote a startling letter urging the debate commission to remove Chris Wallace citing bias and Wallace’s assertion that he would not be fact-checking.

The moderators have not had it easy so far. Lester Holt’s performance in the first debate was widely panned. Elaine Quijano, moderator for the Vice Presidential debate between Tim Kaine (D) and Mike Pence (R) got outmaneuvered, pushed aside and the candidates spoke over each other so frequently, that the debate resembled a food fight more so than any serious discussion of the issues facing the American people. Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz fought gamely to control the debate, but lost the plot a few times. Additionally, Raddatz’s decision to insert herself into the debate to defend President Obama’s Middle East strategy to Trump was a real head-scratcher.

Chris Wallace, though well-known for being a tough interviewer, will suffer a similar fate. This election is one of the nastiest on record and vitriol will feature heavily in the debate. Even the world’s most prepared and authoritative moderators would have a hard time managing these two, but Wallace will try. After all, he’s got the hopes and dreams of the entire Fox News machine, excited about their debut on the general election debate stage, on his shoulders. Wallace is also very aware of how the previous moderators were excoriated in the media and wants to avoid that, so I expect he will be stern. This is hard to sustain over 90 uninterrupted minutes. Expect fireworks, loss of control at times, cross-talking and bouts of confusion. And that is a metaphor for this entire election season.

Dr.Tricia Callender, Ph.D is the President and CEO of Spanner Strategies, LLC, a digital campaign strategy firm with offices in New York and Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be reached at info@spannerstrategies.com.

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