THE BLOG
09/16/2016 02:53 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2017

Three Debates, Two Polar Opposite Candidates, One Common Need

Hillary Clinton has been repeatedly quoting Maya Angelou along the presidential campaign trail, imploring voters to believe the first impressions they received from Donald Trump. But with under eight weeks to go, and three upcoming debates, Clinton might want to review another slice of wisdom from Angelou:

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

As recent polling has indicated a tightening race and Trump improving his numbers with independent voters, it's not hype to say that the upcoming debates could tip this thing either way - for good. Yes, the map and the demographics favor Clinton, but those three big hurdles remain, and the first one could make TV ratings history.

If we set aside the armchair odds-making over who should win these things - and why - what this really comes down to is the how. How will one candidate get the upper hand over the other? What does the path to victory look like? If history is any guide, facts and command of the issues won't be enough. As much as many of us would like to think we act rationally in the ballot booth by weighing the substance of what the candidates are actually offering, deep down, we want to like them. We are human beings. Charm matters.

As I wrote in Roll Call last January, ever since JFK's telegenic defeat over Richard M. Nixon in 1960 touched off the modern media age in American politics, bad performances have consistently led to losses in presidential elections. Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain and Mitt Romney were all defeated by an opponent who was more likable on television.

So how do the two least liked major party nominees in the history of polling become more likable? Especially in light of how deeply the constant media drumbeat has etched the essence of both candidates into our memories? Tapping into emotion is the answer. Both will need to somehow create moments to make viewers feel something good - and avoid making them feel bad.

If we look back at the moments we remember from presidential debates, we see this premise at work. We recall Ronald Reagan saying with a smile, "there you go again" to the dour Jimmy Carter, and voters liked it. Four years later, Reagan had the rehearsed line ready to go about his age difference with Walter Mondale. He delivered it so well and to such raucous laughter, even Mondale cracked up in the background of the camera shot (and looked like a 12 year-old doing so). That debate was over.

Al Gore's conspicuously audible sighing against George W. Bush was unlikable. Bush's humorous nod to the Vice President when Gore invaded his space on stage was likable - and after that it didn't matter who was smarter or more knowledgeable.

Back to the present tense. In this match-up, Trump may have the early advantage. Even as millions of Americans find him to be an appalling person, he's a master at television. He projects confidence and distills answers down to sound bites that are digestible and often sound authentic. It's one of the great ironies of this campaign: in some ways his performance is more of a performance than the "politicians" he rails on - but many voters are convinced that this is him. Whether it's real or not isn't even relevant to the debate over the debates. He's shown, on rare occasions, that he's able to depart briefly from his trademark egocentrism and behave with humility. Trump won't beat Clinton on the facts or on knowledge or on understanding of the world. But if he's able to show a little modesty, perhaps even some semblance of a sincere apology that skeptical but undecided voters can convince themselves to accept - that's his window of opportunity. Being comfortable in front of cameras helps in an effort like this.

That television comfort level is something that Hillary Clinton has just never been able to grasp over her 30+ years in the public eye. It's not her fault. Being in front of TV cameras is an intimidating thing, and some folks can only get so good at it. If you're saying "um" every other sentence, it is difficult to create a flow of thought or inspire confidence. And if you're a naturally guarded person, which Clinton has herself acknowledged she can be at times, TV becomes even harder. People still remember one of her great turnaround moments in the 2008 primary campaign, when she became emotional in a small cafe in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and said: "I just don't want to see us fall backwards." Was it sincere? Was it exhaustion? It doesn't really matter. It struck a chord, and not only did she go on to win NH, she credited the people of the state with helping her to find her "own voice" in her victory speech.

It is often asserted that in-person, amongst friends and colleagues, Hillary Clinton is extremely warm, quick-witted and engaging. But under the pressure of the live lens, there's a steeliness that seems to reflexively move in and block out that natural charm. On September 26th, she will need to find a way to show people a bit of those qualities. Clinton needs to make people feel that she's on their side. Beyond her substantive experience, resume and plans for the country, she needs a moment or two that will tap into the gut of the electorate.

Americans have fairly set opinions about both of these candidates - especially voters who are partisan at their core. But now is the time when many independent voters are beginning to focus in and convert their undecided positions into commitments. At the same time, many voters who've already made their decision may still need motivation to actually go to the polls. And likability just plain matters. It's not the most merit-based method of hiring the leader of the free world. It's also not fair. But it is presidential politics, especially in the modern age, where the power of television still rules American society. Lights, camera...