Opinion Politics

Opinion: Don’t expect fireworks at the first presidential debate

Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey via Flickr
Written by Zach Gheen

The first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump is slated for tonight. In the lead-up to this event, I have noted an expectation that this debate will feature all the fanfare and fireworks of a WWE World Championship.

However, I do not believe this will be the case.

Trump has been acknowledged for his bombastic flair, as displayed during the Republican primary debates. Among many other things, he openly mocked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as being a “tough guy” and blatantly made fun of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s looks.

A critical question to consider before this debate is whether this same sort of performance would have any sort of real, positive effect on the public’s perception of Trump. Conversely, we have to consider how a performance like this would alter the public’s perception of Clinton.

To give a possible answer to these questions, I believe we should look at the demographics of this election’s undecided voters. According to a report by Politico, these undecided voters tend to be young with overall negative views of both candidates.

Should Trump resort to the same strategies that propelled him to the top of the Republican Party’s ticket, I believe we could see many of these undecided voters sway toward Clinton. I would be shocked if the Trump camp has not made this same calculation.

As a result, I believe this debate will be rather boring overall, without much style or flair from either candidate.

A particularly-important circumstance that contributes to my prediction is the fact that these debates will have a silent audience. By watching Trump during his press conferences, you can observe how he is able to feed off the energy of the crowd. By saying these ridiculous things and encouraging a raucous response from the crowd, Trump was able to avoid important questions concerning his temperament and lack of experience.

Another interesting question arises here: Are debates won with substance, or are debates won with theatrics?

Without a doubt, Trump’s ability to entertain has played a role in his rise to prominence. To maintain this attractive quality, I believe Trump will attempt to sneak zingy one-liners, statements that are tailor-made to be run on headlines and television programs across all media sources. Again, this may be overall boring, but this entertainment quality can be maintained in the aftermath of the debate. I doubt the entertainment quality will be present during the debate itself.

When you watch Clinton’s debate performances, I see her presentation as being often policy-oriented, utilizing substance over flair. During the debate, I predict that we will see Clinton lay out a plan that is clear, grounded, and reflective of lessons learned from the past.

The question that I cannot answer with any degree of certainty is what the general public views as a “debate win.” Do voters want to see a candidate who has a mastery of the facts and structures of the political system, or do voter want to see a candidate who can shake up the status quo of presidential politics, for better or worse? I am genuinely perplexed, as a comparison of these candidates’ performances displays a preference for each.

Despite Trump’s earlier strategy seemingly working wonders for him, I believe we will see a much more reserved, but still media-savvy, performance than what we have seen previously.

About the author

Zach Gheen

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