Policy. Likability. Looking presidential. It’s what sticks with voters that matters.

September 26, 2016

The first presidential debate is Monday night. Currents commentators T.J. Rooney and Alan Novak discuss what’s at stake for the candidates and their campaigns in the debate at Hofstra University.

 

Rooney: Let’s just be honest and acknowledge up front that many millions of Americans will be tuning in to the debate for the same reason that Americans tune in to hockey games – to see if a fight will break out.

A lot about these debates is different, just as a lot about this campaign is different. But to me it’s more like the Kennedy-Nixon debate than any other debate in modern times. For many people, how the candidates present and project themselves is going to be more important than what they actually have to say.

Novak: These debates will be like tuning in to watch the season finale of Survivor or America’s Got Talent. Modern debates are entertainment. I don’t mean to sound trivial, because the way we elect a president is serious stuff, but these debates are all about the show. For Donald Trump, on policy, the bar isn’t set that high. As long as he sounds as if he knows what he is talking about, it won’t matter how sound his policy really is.

On the other hand, the bar is set high for Hillary Clinton because she is a detail-oriented policy wonk. More than anything, the show is in how Trump and Clinton conduct themselves and how they interact with each other.

And then there is the sideshow with the moderator. Is the moderator going to be an activist moderator or a distant moderator? Is he going to call out low blows or not?

Rooney: The moderator shouldn’t be the story that comes out of the debate and their performance shouldn’t play a role in the debate, but they are going to by necessity. The moderator, Lester Holt, is going to ask far more specific and probative questions than the candidates are used to answering. Trump is not going to be able to get away with talking about policy in the Middle East by saying he is going to build a wall around it. There is more to foreign policy than that, and that’s terrain Clinton has pitched her tent on over decades. This is tough and challenging terrain for even the most seasoned veteran political wonk.

The bar is set exceedingly high for Clinton and exceedingly low for Trump. I think by most standards, if Trump doesn’t fall over or say something completely off the charts, the campaign will be able to call it a good evening. But that’s the trap. These debates are long. For somebody who knows very little about a lot, the length of the debate is a very tough challenge. If Trump doesn’t have serious answers to serious questions it will go on forever and Trump won’t look serious. If he doesn’t look serious, it could be a disaster for him.

Novak: Trump has real momentum coming into the debate and he has a real advantage over Clinton on current events that frame the issues now: terrorism; police and violence; the economy and jobs; trade policy; a change in the direction of the country and its leadership. If he’s smart, Trump will press his advantage, contrast his position with hers, and use her record against her.

She will talk about her experience, and about how reckless he is, but the terrorism and foreign policy of the Obama administration, where she has been front and center, is appearing more reckless than her characterization of him. She’ll hit him on his words, but actions in the form of real-time events are speaking louder.

Trump will be rated on how he goes about defining all of that. Is he presidential? Is he strong? Can he add a dose of humor and likability? Let’s face it: Clinton still hasn’t filled in the gap on likability or trust. If Trump sounds and looks presidential, he could close the deal with voters.

Rooney: I love Alan like a brother, but Trump looking presidential is wishful optimism. He needs to come across in an appealing way and he has just never done it. Forget about two hours – he hasn’t been able to do it for two minutes.

We should keep in mind that it’s people’s reaction after the debate that really matters. It’s all about the takeaways. I remember vividly thinking in the year 2000 after Al Gore debated George Bush: “How can any right-minded, forward-thinking individual see this any way other than he clobbered him?” Millions of thoughtful people saw it in a completely opposite way. Gore’s sighing was something that people focused on and extrapolated that he lost the debate. It didn’t matter a lick what he had to say or how he said it. Everything, down to the smallest mannerism, matters.

Novak: My memory of the Bush-Gore debate was the moment when Gore invaded Bush’s space. Bush looked at him, shrugged his shoulders, and gave a smirk that seemed to say, “What are you doing?” Those are the kind of takeaways that resonate. Voters remember those moments. It’s the stuff we can’t even fathom right now that is going to come out in this debate.

The winner of this debate will be the person that scores higher on likability coming out of it than he or she did going in. Maybe you don’t have to have charming Trump, but he is going to be landing blows and she is going to be scoring points. That is the nature of a debate. They are boxing matches. It’s well-known that Clinton is hunkered down and preparing. But, more so than Clinton, it’s Trump’s performance that counts. If he doesn’t do it in a clumsy fashion; if he doesn’t do it in a mean fashion; rather, if he goes after her using wit and humor, he will score higher on likability coming out of the debate than he had going in.

Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney are principals of RooneyNovak Group Bipartisan Solutions and appear together regularly to discuss political issues and debate policy. Contact them at alan@rooneynovak.com and tjrooney@rooneynovak.com.

 

Note: This column first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer Currents section on September 25, 2016.

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