We’re only 43 days away from Election Day, and tonight is the first of three presidential debates between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Here’s a quick primer on what to watch for:
First, it’s worth mentioning who you won’t see. In order to get on the debate floor, a candidate needs to be averaging 15 percent or better in polls. The last time a third candidate reached a major debate was in 1992 when independent Ross Perot joined George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. This year, Libertarian Gary Johnson has been pulling in around eight percent in polls. Johnson, as well as the Green Party’s Jill Stein, will have to sit this one out.
As is custom, host NBC released the debate topics beforehand, albeit without revealing too much. Moderator Lester Holt will start by asking the candidates about “America’s direction.” Clinton will certainly defend America’s current path under President Barack Obama. She could point to unemployment rates, which are at their lowest point in almost a decade, or social progress. Look for Trump to bring up America “losing” in global trade and foreign policy.
We’ll also see debate on “achieving prosperity.” The discussion will probably be one of economics. Clinton may speak to her plan for America’s largest ever infrastructure investment program. Trump has focused on taxes, releasing a plan to cut taxes across businesses and all income brackets. As I alluded to, Trump will probably also go into a diatribe on America’s failing trade deals.
Holt will conclude by asking the candidates about “securing America.” From an entertainment perspective, this is the part of the debate I am looking forward to the most. Trump will almost certainly attack Clinton on her use of personal email servers for classified information. He could also mention securing America domestically by keeping refugees out, using the “law and order” motif he has continually called on.
One last thing to keep an eye on is the moderator’s actions. Holt’s colleague Matt Lauer was criticized for time management and for failing to hold candidates accountable for their statements during a public forum earlier this month. Trump mentioned being “totally against the War in Iraq,” which is simply untrue, with no evidence that the candidate ever spoke out about the war before if began. Critics are hopeful that Holt will hold candidates to a much greater level of accountability while also ensuring that they respect time limits.
We’ll find out soon after the debate who “won.” Winning doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot, though. Mitt Romney’s poll numbers soared after beating President Obama in their first debate, but this bump didn’t last until Election Day.
It hasn’t been a great month for the Clinton campaign. The candidate’s lead in polls nationwide, as well as in key states, has started to disappear. Tonight is an opportunity for Clinton – historically a very solid debater – to halt the Trump surge. Trump, on the other hand, needs to convince more independents (and some Republicans) that he is ready for the Oval Office. To this end, he ought to avoid the immaturity and brashness that turned the Republican debates into an exercise of interrupting and yelling. To quote the great wide receiver Terrell Owens, one of the great bards of our time, “get your popcorn ready.”