We are approaching what will be, ratings wise, likely the biggest presidential debate ever. When Trump and Hillary square off against each other the stakes will be sky high and the pressure will be on like never before. For two unliked candidates, a close election hangs in the balance: Can either of them change or seal their fortunes in what is the last big event of the season (there are two more debates and what may be the most boring VP debate ever--but this is probably the big one).
HillaryHillary comes off her worst cycle yet with a modest (if somewhat uneven) rebound. Following her literal collapse from [ something ] there are rumors she is sick, rumors she is over-prepared, and rumors she has a body-double. Right now she leads by something like 70-30 and is pretty dead-even in all-important Florida. For her, she wants to hold or expand her lead.
TrumpTrump came off his best cycle yet, reaching near parity with Clinton and threatening the "Blue Firewall" of Democratic states on the margins. No one really knows what his electorate will look like so polls need to be taken with a bigger grain of salt than even usual. For Trump, slightly but significantly behind, this is chance to introduce himself to a portion of the electorate that may not have been as heavily immersed in politics but has certainly heard "a lot" from him (and about him) and want to see for themselves.
What Hillary Wants To DoHillary wants to connect with the 18-34 demographic who right now view her as largely better than Trump but still not worthy of a vote. She needs to prosecute the case against Donald Trump that he is unfit for office--while evidencing that she has the necessary skills and experience. She needs to come off as human, sympathetic, and (if possible) likable enough to bring people in.
She also needs to appear healthy, strong, and spry. While most people probably don't buy that she has dementia, after a caught-on-video collapse after falling ill at the 9/11 ceremony, the powerful image of her being weak or unwell is a real issue. Just as Reagan jabbed at Carter about his age (both Reagan's age and Carter's younger age) using a few humor beats to win over the audience, Hillary needs to convince people at a gut level that she is in good health.
What Trump Wants To DoBenefiting from what Republicans have termed the "soft bigotry of low expectations," Trump needs to appear modestly presidential. If he can, he will bring home a portion of the #NotYetTrump Republicans and might sway some of the people who hate Hillary but consider him too much of a risk.
Trump needs to show people that he is not a shallow narcissist or racist. He can play the tough-talker well but he needs to assure people that he'd be a safe choice. For people who think Hillary would be a disaster on the Supreme Court--but that Trump could be a literal existential risk to America, he needs to lower the down-side perception. He also needs to show some humility in some kind of meaningful way.
How To Execute
The going theories here are that debates rarely make a difference unless something substantial happens and that they are best understood not as a full narrative of a policy speech but as a small collection of moments the candidates create that can be replayed or expose something about the candidate. Examples of a good moment would be Reagan's humor and a bad one, Rick Perry's "Oops."
For some of these, the candidates will be primed. The Omnivore has little doubt that Hillary is studying some laugh-lines and preparing to ace policy questions. It is likely that Trump is being coached about how to present himself as presidential and is deciding what lines of attack might be too risky or toxic to use vs. which ones he can unload on.
Who Has A Harder Time?
The answer is almost unquestionably Hillary. Firstly while both candidates are known quantities, Hillary may well be more ill than her supporters would hope (pneumonia is no small thing--and that's assuming it goes no further). Secondly, while she's very experienced in debates, she has a very unusual challenge in Trump. Her stated game-plan is to rattle him: that's outside her comfort zone. His stated game-plan is to be Trump, just a bit less so. That's not as far a reach.
Secondly, her expectations are that he won't catch her on anything--that she can debate rings around him. His expectations are that he can, maybe, name a foreign leader or something where appropriate. He can definitely manage that.
Some Deeper Thoughts
To a large extent this cake may already be baked. The Omnivore doubts that most millennials will be voting for Gary Johnson on election day. Some might not vote at all but it seems unlikely that the 3rd party candidates will continue to pull strong numbers after the debate in which neither of them are on the stage. While the 3rd Party people draw some from each, if we give them the likely allotments, Hillary gains 1 or 2 points in a few key states and that's a lot.
Her ability to pull them may not hinge on much beyond her showing up and being able to stand upright--Trump is a disaster from their perspective and seems unable or unwilling to correct that.
The question will be just how do they go at each other. Will Trump declare she is dying of brain cancer? Will he talk about her failing to sexually satisfy her husband? Will he accuse her of killing Vince Foster? In earlier days these would be unthinkable but they're at least on the table now.
Conversely, does she, to his face, accuse him of being racist? Does she bring his supporters into this? She has laid some of the ground work for this with her Alt-Right speech but doing it in person is . . . different. Secondly, there's a high risk of back-lash if you go for the throat. Trump doesn't want to look like a bully. Clinton doesn't want to look like a bitch. Threading those needles in mortal-verbal-combat is hard. There's a reason why these things usually don't happen.
On the other hand, Hillary wants to fire up her base and dropping some nuclear-grade Truth-Bombs on Trump might do that. Trump, trailing slightly, but significantly, needs to take her down a peg. His supporters are expecting him to destroy her. He probably is interested in that as well--we just don't know what that looks like to him.
In the debates we saw, Hillary was okay but boring and Trump had some good moments but then faded. He also never took a chance to pivot when it (probably) would have benefited him (a solid pivot would have put Cruz away earlier and maybe Kasich as well). Maybe he can't.
Close To The Line
By the time you read this, there will probably be two full days before the debate itself. Both sides seem to have concluded they'll each do at least this one and while we don't know what the moderator will do, it seems reasonable to assume that he will be forced to say something if Trump tells what the mainstream media considers a verifiable lie. If that's the rule in play then Trump is going to have some tough decisions to make because it seems likely that some of his previous statements will come up and battling with the moderator, even for Trump, probably isn't a winning move.
So we'll see.