3 Key Things To Watch For In The Upcoming Presidential Debate

Trump’s a lot of things, but a person who enjoys losing is not one of them.
09/22/2016 10:30 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2016
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton square off in the first
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Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton square off in the first of three presidential debates on Monday

Well, folks. This is the moment that we’ve all been waiting for (well, not all…) The first debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump on Monday, September 26th at 9 pm EDT. This debate marks the first time (out of three) that the two rivals meet on stage one-on-one. Debate moderator Lester Holt has his hands full.

In the last few weeks, this election season has taken some shocking twists and turns that would make even the most seasoned adrenaline junkie sick to his/her stomach. Between Hillary Clinton’s very public fainting episode at the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Donald Trump’s sudden about-face on the birther issue, the Clinton email scandal resurrecting yet again in its latest incarnation and the polls jumping up and down like the EKG of a nervous, but dying person, I don’t know if we can even muster the stomach to watch this one. But watch we will, with rapt attention. Even those who don’t give a hoot about politics will be microwaving their popcorn and refreshing their Twitter pages minute-by-minute during the spectacle.

Whatever happens, it’s certainly going to be oh-so-watchable. Loyal Democrats will insist that Hillary Clinton won, and staunch Republicans will gush over Donald Trump’s performance regardless of how many insult salvos he throws. But for the independent, non-committal and disenchanted voters who represent the majority of the United States, here are three things to watch for in the upcoming debate:

1. A More Presidential Trump and a More Animated Clinton

Trump’s a lot of things, but a person who enjoys losing is not one of them. He’s seen his poll numbers go up, he knows he now has a chance, but he also knows that a lot of the ground that he’s gained on Clinton is because of her numbers falling, rather than him earning any real ground. Suddenly, Trump has a viable electoral path to the Presidency. And he and his team know that’s because of Clinton’s missteps and health more than anything having to do with Trump.

To that end, he’s going to (at least try to) seem more measured and presidential without completely losing the no-nonsense, angry outsider edge that got him the Republican nomination in the first place.

Only time will tell if he will be able to maintain the Trump 2.0 affect for the entire 90 minutes of the debate, but he will either start or finish with this approach. Can he maintain it throughout the debate though? That remains to be seen.

In contrast, look for a more animated Clinton who will ramp up the passion, sound and fury in warning us about the dangers of a Trump presidency. She’s also seen her dropping poll numbers and her measured approach, while it served her well in the beginning against the bombastic and impolitic Trump, isn’t doing her any favors now. She was widely criticized on social media for her somnambulistic response to the recent terrorist bombings in New York City and New Jersey. She seemed out of touch with public anger and frankly, disinterested. Trump, in contrast, got out ahead of the story, though hot-headed and without evidence. But it’s hard to castigate a guy (and make it stick) for making assumptions about a situation, when at the end of the day he turned out to be right.

Clinton’s going to play tougher, stronger and more passionate. Trump’s going to try for the more dignified route. Who can pull off this new version of themselves longer before the mask falls off remains to be seen. My money is on Clinton who seems genuinely angry that Trump is even close to her in this race and can use that as fuel for her new fiery approach.

2. Clinton is going to try to appeal to millennials, Trump is going to appeal to women

Clinton’s problems with millennial voters are well-documented. During the primary, she lost the millennial vote to Bernie Sanders by a whopping 43 point margin. In the 2008 primary she lost the millennial vote to Obama by a 20 point margin. The great news for Clinton, as far as this is concerned, is that although millennials don’t like her, they REALLY don’t like Donald Trump. And in that daylight is where she needs to firmly stand in order to win this debate. And look for her to do it. Repeatedly.

She knows she doesn’t need to fear millennials turning out en masse to vote for Trump, but she does need them to turn out for her rather than staying home. In order to excite millennials, Clinton will repeatedly align herself with the millennial-approved Obama and adopt some of Sanders’ policies—particularly the issues that millennials deem important like jobs, minimum wage, paid leave and student loan reform. And she will draw sharp contrasts with Trump whose platform is largely millennial-repellent.

Trump, on the other hand, will seek to appeal to women voters, a key group he can’t afford to lose in droves. Trump has this going for him: he’s never been considered a “real conservative” anyway so he can afford to break away from the traditional Republican platforms on key women’s issues, and go a bit rogue. We’ve seen this play out recently with his recent paid maternity leave and child-care tax credit plan (co-written with his daughter and main campaign surrogate Ivanka), which to a dyed-in-the-wool Republican would qualify as a dreaded entitlement program. He’s also advocated for over-the-counter birth control which was previously anathema for Republican values voters. But he’s got the leeway to do it, since mainstream Republicans have abandoned him in droves, he owes them no loyalty and can afford to scoot to the middle on some of these issues in the hopes of attracting female voters. Look for Trump to dig in on these issues whenever there’s an opening.

Video: The Millennial Vote in 2016: CNN’s John King Looks at the Importance of this Key Voting Bloc

3. An Awkward Question About Black Lives Matter Protests and Police Brutality—And Even More Awkward Answers from the Candidates

Given the overall tense climate regarding police brutality, most recently, the protests flaring in Tulsa and Charlotte over the police killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, look for an awkwardly phrased debate question that addresses this issue directly. As is often the case with questions that have to do with race, both candidates will clumsily try to tiptoe on the fine line between appealing to their base, without alienating the middle. As a result: cue the awkwardness.

Clinton who during the primary was somewhat loathe to even utter the words “Black Lives Matter” and had some well-publicized discursive skirmishes with Black Lives Matter activists, has moved left on race issues and now, possibly due in large part to her success with Black voters, has advocated for more dialogue on racism including recently condemning police shooting Black citizens at disproportionately high rates.

However, with Black millennials, Hillary doesn’t fare so well. The August GenForward survey found that 60 percent of Black millennials support Clinton (30 points less than the Black population generally), with 14 percent opting not to vote all. In order to get Black millennial voters to the polls, she has to move left on this issue very forcefully and publicly. And even if she does, given the deep distrust that millennials in general have for Clinton, winning them over is not guaranteed.

Trump’s problems, on the other hand, with Black voters are legendary. At one point he was said to be polling at the statistical equivalent of zero. Moreover, in front of a mainly white crowd he spoke directly to Black voters asking since their situation was so bleak, “what the hell did they have to lose?” by voting for him.

Though the political establishment and cognoscenti lost their minds about his appeal to Black voters, depending on which poll you read and interpret, there’s been a slight shift upward on Trump’s numbers with Black voters. Moreover, his so-called appeal to Black voters, was really an appeal to white voters that were uncomfortable with Trump’s racial bombast. Trump and his team are smart enough to know he’s not going to win the Black vote, but if he can appear to not be a rabid racist, that’s more appealing to middle American white voters that place a high premium on “tone.”

We see this lately with Trump’s response to the murders in Tulsa and Charlotte. And though he certainly would not be accused of being “left” on the issues, he’s certainly taken a more even, careful tone. He will play the “measured guy that’s thoughtful on racism” and really flaunt it during the debate, hoping to paint Clinton into a “radical leftist” corner by comparison. And radical leftists don’t play well in middle America.

My money is on Trump for this one, he’s got the element of surprise since his racial awareness bar is so low. Anything he says that sounds even vaguely reasonable, he will be over-credited. Clinton is at a real disadvantage here unless she comes out swinging. Whomever does this tip-toe dance the best, will win this round, and quite possibly, the debate.

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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