Conventional wisdom has it that the imminent series of three
TV debates between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary
Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump will likely be
pivotal in the election contest that will conclude a month later.
As a chronic contrarian, I suspect that expectations on both
sides are exaggerated.
The most important element in a televised presidential debate
is visual, not verbal.
That is why John Kennedy in 1960 in the first TV presidential
debate ever defeated Richard Nixon. Most who heard that
debate only n the radio thought that Nixon had won. But Nixon’s
appearance and visual manner enabled the glamorous Kennedy
to be the winner for those who watched the debate on TV.
Three famous “blunders” in TV debates in later years were
momentarily sensational, but were not electorally fatal. Gerald
Ford mischaracterized the communist Eastern European bloc in
his debate with Jimmy Carter, but his poll numbers kept rising
after the debate. His eventual loss was primarily assigned to his
pardon of his predecessor Richard Nixon. In his first debate with
Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan appeared uncertain and
confused, but he recovered sufficiently in the next debate to
defeat Mondale in a landslide. Mitt Romney, by all accounts,
clearly outperformed Barack Obama in their first TV debate,
but did not win the election.
Conventional wisdom also has it that Mrs. Clinton will outperform
Mr. Trump in their upcoming debates. That expectation is based on
the fact that she has much more public policy experience and
factual knowledge than he does. If the debates were to be decided
on solely that verbal basis, it might be a fair anticipation. But
Donald Trump faced 16 primary/caucus opponents who not only
had much more public policy “knowledge” than he did (and some
of them were also exceedingly good debaters), and yet he won the
nomination with relative ease.
Some observers suggest that while Trump was effective in debate
against multiple opponents, it will be a different story when he
has only one opponent facing him. Perhaps that is so, but perhaps
more likely will be that having only one opponent who is Hillary
Clinton will work to his advantage, particularly if the Hillary
Clinton who appears on the TV screen is the person she has been
perceived as in recent weeks on the campaign trail.
Newt Gingrich has publicly asserted that Donald Trump is the
best political debater today. Since he is a Trump partisan, this
assertion needs to be taken with caution, but Mr. Gingrich is the
reigning expert on the subject, partisanship aside. In my opinion,
the former speaker is the best political debater I have seen, and
I cite his performance in his own presidential run in 2012 as
evidence. Mr. Gingrich contends that Donald Trump’s debate
skill is unconventional, almost entirely intuitive, and inevitably
uncanny. If this is so, a lot of expectations will be upset in the
first Clinton-Trump debate.
Mrs. Clinton, unlike Mr. Trump, will be carefully prepared for
her debates with her opponent. She will have gone through weeks
of rehearsals with stand-ins against her. She will have “gotcha”
ripostes ready, and pre-planned provocations to unnerve the
first-time candidate running against her. (Mr. Trump, as we all
know by now, is quite capable of saying something outlandish.)
She will be superbly ready for a conventional debate, and if it
turns out to be one, she could come away with renewed
enthusiasm and momentum from the voters.
“Where’s the beef?” is perhaps the most famous line to come from
a televised presidential nomination debate. It was considered,
especially by the “sophisticated” media of its time, a mortal blow
to the opponent (Gary Hart) of the man (Walter Mondale) who spoke
it. In fact, Mr. Mondale went on to win his party’s nomination. In
November, however, after openly declaring he would raise taxes,
he suffered the worst presidential election defeat in modern history.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.