Government & Politics

Facts, faces, zingers: What America will be watching in the first presidential debate

First, the obvious: the presidential debate Monday is must-see TV, crucial to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a turning point in the race.

“The stakes are huge,” said David Spence, once a Republican candidate for Missouri governor.

“They both need to do well,” agreed Democratic strategist Richard Martin of Kansas City.

The 90-minute, ad-free exchange will air on the big TV networks, cable news outlets, CSPAN. Websites will stream it live. Social media will reach the melting point.

Many expect it to be the most-watched debate in U.S. history, exceeding the 2012 encounter between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, which drew around 70 million viewers. Some analysts said 100 million people may watch part of this year’s contest, moving it close to Super Bowl audience territory.

But what to watch for? What will be the important moments? What will your neighbors and co-workers talk about when it’s over? Who wilted? Who won?

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Below is a rough guide to help answer those questions and prepare for Monday’s big event, which begins at 8 p.m. CDT, with help from political experts, partisans and debate coaches.


▪ Most voters have already made up their minds. They’ll be watching the debate for affirmation of their views, not for differences between the candidates. If you watch at a debate party, the cheering and booing may make it hard to hear the candidates. If you’re an undecided voter, a quiet location will be a better choice.

▪ While the debate is very important, it may not decide the winner of the election. Romney clocked Obama in that first 2012 debate, yet Romney still lost in November. At the same time, poor debate performances might have doomed Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Gerald Ford in 1976. Some disappointment in your candidate is acceptable; despair is not.

▪ Snap judgments can be wrong. Everyone will have a reaction to the debate, but it may take a few days for the conventional wisdom to lock in. Everyone will be pointing to perceived errors and gaffes after the debate ends, but a final ruling will take longer.

▪ Beware instant fact-checkers, whether on mainstream media or social sites. While the pressure will be on moderator Lester Holt to make immediate true/false calls in real time, quality fact-checking takes time. The candidates will call each other liars; nonpartisan fact-checking organizations will want to take more time to look at the record.

With those caveats in mind, let’s look at the debate.

The issues

The debate will be segmented, with Holt picking the topics. He’s said he’ll spend 30 minutes on each of three issues: America’s direction, securing the nation and prosperity.

Pretty open-ended. The recent bombing in New York City may tilt the exchange to the terror threat, some analysts believe.

“Obviously the hot button today,” Spence said. “I would also think that there might be some talk about trustworthiness.”

Taxes, federal spending, even immigration are likely to be on the table. Clinton will talk about college affordability and the minimum wage; Trump will likely discuss trade agreements and jobs in declining blue collar industries.

Each will attack the other on scandals related to their nonprofit charities.

Voters will want to see specifics, Republicans and Democrats said. To date, even Republicans believe Trump has talked about issues largely in generalities. He’ll get the chance to fill in the blanks on some policy ideas during the debate.

“I think Trump will win on the issues,” said Kay Hoflander, a Missouri Republican and delegate to the party’s national convention in Cleveland. “The economy, immigration, crime. The military.”

Democrats think Clinton will have a clear advantage on policy details.

“She may want to tweak Trump, but that can’t be her game plan,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “She’s factually based. … I think she shows that he’s unfit by dealing with facts.”

Other Democrats are worried Clinton will focus too much on facts and policies, losing the contrast with Trump’s more generic statements.

“Trump won the Republican nomination by turning debates against experienced candidates and debaters into reality TV contests,” said Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and member of the Kansas House of Representatives. “Even mistakes of fact or decorum do not diminish him, they just make him appear authentic.”

Clinton’s goal, Ward said, should be to keep the focus on Trump’s lack of experience and her own knowledge of the world.

Race will also be an issue. It’s the most difficult and dangerous topic of the 2016 campaign, with accusations of racism and bigotry flying in both directions. Both candidates will face enormous challenges in addressing race relations while avoiding inflammatory rhetoric, if they can.

Recent police shootings in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C., will almost certainly be on the table.


But most viewers won’t be tuning in for a rational exchange of view on, say, currency manipulation. They want to watch how Clinton and Trump act: Angry? Insulting? Funny? Frustrated?

“The candidate that stands there for 90 minutes and spouts more facts and figures, evidence and statistics, is typically seen as the loser” in post-debate surveys, said Mitch McKinney, a communications professor at the University of Missouri. “Viewers are not tuning in to see who’s smartest.”

Instead, “demeanor and approach are as important as the things they’re actually saying,” noted Kyle Dennis, director of debate at William Jewell College. “It’s everything. It’s the non-verbals. It’s all the body language. It’s the tone. And a lot of it is the circus, too.”

Republicans believe Trump has altered his approach in recent weeks, becoming more subdued. They expect — and want — him to continue to tone down the language in order to attract moderate undecided voters.

“People want to see if he can be presidential,” said Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. “Can he look, act and be that role of a president? He’s done that before …like when he went down to Mexico.”

Spence: “He has been rational as of late, and that needs to be seen and heard. He needs to come across as compassionate, caring and knowledgeable.”

In the days leading up to the debate, Trump himself offered mixed signals on his approach.

“She can bait me and I can bait her and we will see what happens,” he said Monday on Fox News.

On Tuesday, Clinton suggested she’ll return whatever gets lobbed her way.

“I am going to do my very best to communicate as clearly and as fearlessly as I can in the face of the insults and the attacks and the bullying and bigotry we’ve seen coming from my opponent,” she told a radio interviewer.

Democrats know Trump flummoxed his GOP opponents on debate stages in the spring. But they note he’s never debated one-on-one with any opponent, and has never faced a candidate from the other political party.

“I think it’s going to be Donald Trump acting like he’s in a knife fight,” said Jim Slattery, a former Kansas congressman and a Democrat. “I expect him to come in and really go for the jugular.”

Clinton’s reaction to those attacks, if they come, will be important, outsiders said.

Dennis, the debate director, suggested another complication: It’s the first presidential debate between a man and a woman. How Trump treats her, and how Clinton treats him, may directly affect voters’ impressions of the debate.

Errors, gaffes, zingers

Most presidential debates, if they’re remembered at all, are recalled for one-liners and slip-ups. Both candidates will seek to avoid the latter and employ the former.

“Hillary Clinton, being the first woman candidate to run for president, will need a brilliant performance,” said Barbara Ballard, a Democrat from Lawrence and a delegate to the party’s national convention in Philadelphia.

Clinton is also expected to emphasize Trump’s earlier stumbles — on the Khan family, women, minorities.

“She will hit him on more social issues and some of his earlier gaffes,” said Spence, a Republican.

Yet some Democrats fear Clinton could over-think the strategy, making comments and jokes appear canned. Trump is much more practiced in the art of quips, insults and name-calling, they noted.

“His style of the one-liners, the very condensed stream of consciousness, off the top of his head retorts” worked to Trump’s advantage in primaries, McKinney said.

But Republicans believe Trump’s supporters are willing to overlook factual mistakes, if he makes any. They will watch to see if the businessman effectively skewers Clinton, throwing her off her stride during the exchange.

“This debate,” the GOP’s Arnold said, “is (about) how they operate when the pressure’s on.”


It’s the media’s favorite post-debate game: did the candidates do better, or worse, than expected?

Clinton may already be losing the pre-debate expectations battle. By consensus, she’s expected to perform better than Trump.

“The most pressure is on Clinton,” Ward of Wichita said. “People expect her to do well. She is the experienced candidate and debater.”

Yet Trump can’t mail it in, Republicans agreed. If he fails to meet already low expectations, it could damage his candidacy. He still trails in the Real Clear Politics average of all polls, although the margin is just one point, well within the possibility of error.

Interestingly, the two candidates appear to have approached debate preparation differently. National media reports say Clinton has practiced extensively for the exchange, while Trump has rehearsed more sporadically.

There are also wild cards. Clinton’s well-documented health issues may prompt some viewers to watch for signs of physical weakness. Trump’s stumbles on basic questions — he didn’t know what America’s nuclear triad is, for example — could haunt him in the final weeks of the campaign.

It’s also possible the debate could be a dud. Election Day is closer, but it isn’t here yet.

“This first debate might just be enough,” said the GOP’s Hoflander, “to get people to tune in to the other debates.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

Debate schedule

Monday: First presidential debate, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y. Moderator: Lester Holt, NBC News

Oct. 4: Vice presidential debate, Longwood University, Farmville, Va. Moderator: Elaine Quijano, CBS News

Oct. 9: Second presidential debate, Washington University, St. Louis. Moderators: Martha Raddatz, ABC News; Anderson Cooper, CNN (town hall format)

Oct. 19: Third presidential debate, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Moderator: Chris Wallace, Fox News