Decoding the US election: Finally they debate

5:42 pm on 22 September 2016

Opinion - The first US presidential debate takes place next Tuesday - and it's the best chance for the candidates to turn the electoral tide their way.

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump will debate each other for the first time on Tuesday in Hempstead, Long Island. Photo: AFP

Detail your foreign policy in two minutes

The most famous American debates are probably those between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A Douglas, Illinois politicians who contested for the senate and later for the presidency. Their debates, which took place on outdoor hustings across the state, were watched by thousands, and transcribed in newspapers across the nation. In them, Lincoln reframed slavery and showed himself to be a serious candidate for president.

In one of their earliest contests, in Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, Douglas opened with a three-hour-long speech. When it was finally Lincoln's turn to speak, it was already five o'clock. Lincoln's response and then Douglas' rebuttal would last at least another four hours, so Lincoln suggested the audience go home, have dinner, and then return for the continuation, which they did. That's seven or more hours of weighty philosophical and political argument.

Neil Postman tells that story in Amusing Ourselves to Death, a prophetic 1985 book which argued that technology and showbiz had trivialised public discourse, and that was all before the internet.

This year's first debate will take place in Hempstead, the Long Island village where the poet Walt Whitman once yawped. The candidates will have just two minutes to answer the major questions. Lincoln would weep.

How important are the debates?

The debates are traditionally the crucible of the campaign and frequently get credited with outcomes that are more complex. But it's easier to say, for example, that Ronald Reagan's performance against Jimmy Carter was masterful than to tease out how the Carter campaign was scuttled by the oil shock and the debilitating Iran hostage crises; or to delve further and consider the boggling insider claim that Reagan's team did a deal with the Ayatollah to make sure the hostages weren't released until after the election. It's easier to say it was the debates "wot won it".

That said, debates do have the potential for enormous impact. It is possible that a candidate will crumple as Rick Perry did, forgetting which government departments he wanted to close, or gaff like Gerald Ford, stating "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe".

If anyone does flub, it will be hard to avoid: the debate is airing live on 13 different US networks and streaming on 23 others. A Morning Consult poll this week found 73 percent of registered voters were at least somewhat likely to watch it. That's 106 million people, a reach that usually only the Super Bowl achieves. Obama's first two debates averaged 66 million.

Hillary Clinton speaking at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 19 September.

Hillary Clinton campaigning in Pennsylvania Photo: AFP

A winner's tactics

This may be the most 'gloves off' debate in modern times.

Donald Trump will likely continue his highly successful tactic of pre-emptively attacking Hillary Clinton on all of his own weak points. He will call her a crook, so that if she suggests he's corrupt it come across as a he-said-she-said; he will call her unstable, so if she says he is a textbook narcissist it's sour grapes; he will call her a liar so if she implies he has historic levels of mendacity it's just a tit-for-tat. He is highly skilled at crafting false equivalencies.

But he will want her to hit back - to keep her down in the squabble, rather than claiming any calm, presidential high ground.

Tony Schwartz, one of Donald Trump's ghost writers claims that "Trump is simply unable to absorb complex information". He won't come armed with detailed policies, facts, figures and memorized speeches. He'll be armed with put-downs, insults and accusations. He has been receiving advice from disgraced former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who is a master of the smear.

He may try an early low blow (like a reference to Bill Clinton's affairs), to throw Hillary Clinton off and evoke an emotional reaction - because an emotional woman is seen as a shrill harpy, while an emotional man is just passionate.

Hillary Clinton may equally look to needle Donald Trump into exploding. She may go after his hands, his hair, intelligence, his mental health, his wealth or his image as successful. The object will be to goad him into abusing her in a bullying fashion. Voters react very poorly to a man bullying a woman.

It's a tough balancing act though. Clinton will want to make it quite clear that she understands the country, knows the details and is a calm, safe pair of hands. Trump will be trying to appear presidential.

It's not the words

When James Thurber watched the first televised debate he observed, "From now on, I think it is safe to predict, neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party will ever nominate for president a candidate without good looks, stage presence, theatrical delivery, and a sense of timing."

They are still often missing. No-one this year is an oil painting but Trump has presence and timing in spades. Hillary Clinton is a hugely knowledgeable policy wonk but is not a natural performer.

For a clear view of who is winning you might want to mute the sound. Sadly what counts in a modern debate is not what you say, it is how you look saying it. Basically, Trump is better at image, Clinton is better at facts, and image beats facts.

The post-match analysis will discuss zingers, poise, confidence, and who looked presidential. They will largely ignore who had the better grasp of policy (unless someone really screws up). The voters will judge it the same way, basing the outcome on fleeting moments - a nervous glance, an over-cocky grin, a blank frozen look before the brain engages. And everyone will be watching through the foggy spectacles of bias and expectation.

Veteran debate host Bob Shieffer told the Washington Post this week, "Issues are important. Party affiliation is important. But in presidential elections, I believe most Americans cast their votes for the person they feel most comfortable with in time of crisis."

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump unveils his 10-point plan to crack down on illegal immigration during a campaigm event inside the Phoenix Convention Center on August 31, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Donald Trump unveiling his 10-point plan to crack down on illegal immigration earlier this month Photo: AFP

A monkey with a machine gun

Democratic candidate Governor Martin O'Malley's image of Donald Trump debating is of "a monkey with a machine gun". Unpredictable and dangerous. He will have a few lines prepared, but will largely wing it, and what his approach will be is anyone's guess.

What we know is he will say outrageous things with such confidence they seem plausible. The biggest unknown in the debate is whether the host, Lester Holt, will have the fortitude to reign in the more mendacious statements. Typically, debate hosts leave it for the opponent to be the fact checker and the US media has a tradition of staying above the fray. But just recently they have begun to call out lies, as they did last week when Donald Trump claimed Hillary Clinton was responsible for his Obama birther conspiracy theories.

Matt Lauer's hosting of the recent town hall event was so widely lambasted that Lester Holt has some impetus for being more demanding.

The debates may be the last chance any journalist has to call Donald Trump out on falsehoods or to question him directly about financial misdeeds. He has stopped giving interviews to credible journalists and now relies on daily chats with Fox News anchors. He hasn't given a full news conference since July.

Veteran debate host Bob Shieffer has said: "With more and more misleading, distorted and downright wrong information finding its way into campaign dialogue this year, moderators should be prepared to say, 'Candidates, for the record, there is no evidence to support that,' or words to that effect."

Said Donald Trump, "I don't care. My facts are good. My facts are good. I don't get enough credit for having my facts right. They'll say I'm wrong even when I'm right."

*Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.