Depending on your perspective, the first debate of the general election has either been an excruciatingly long time coming, or it got here way too fast, with the days left until our collective doom slipping by like water through our fingers.
In either case, at 9 p.m. Eastern Monday, the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern American history will take the stage at Long Island’s Hofstra University and spend 90 minutes trying to convince voters why they are preferable to their rival.
On the eve of the debate, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found the race close enough for the paper to characterise it as a “dead heat” – 46 percent of likely voters were siding with Clinton and 44 percent with Trump (Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson got five percent in that poll, while the Green Party’s Jill Stein got one percent.)
Here’s what to watch out for during bout one of Clinton vs. Trump.
NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will moderate this first of four debates. (ABC’s Martha Raddatz, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace of Fox News will moderate the other two presidential debates, while Elaine Quijano of CBS will moderate the face-off between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.)
Holt will be entirely on his own. During the primary debates, like the one he moderated in January, anchors have an entire TV network apparatus supporting them, including producers and staff to help with research and follow-up question. The general-election debates are different: They’re organised by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, rather than individual networks. That means Holt alone is responsible for writing his questions and follow-ups. Holt will have help from a single NBC staffer, and commission executive producer Marty Slutsky – who has overseen each presidential debate since 2000 – will keep track of time in his ear.
Even though he won’t have the full weight of NBC behind him, Holt will be carrying the network’s baggage. Many will be watching to make sure he doesn’t repeat the mistakes of his colleague Matt Lauer, who was was widely criticised for bungling the NBC Commander-in-Chief Forum a few weeks ago. Specifically, Lauer was accused of dwelling too long on Clinton’s email server, then speaking over her and rushing her through answers on national security, and of failing to press Trump beyond the question, “Why should you be commander-in-chief?” and allowing him to repeat, unchallenged, the lie that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. Holt should be used to cleaning up his colleagues’ messes, though: He was tapped to fill Brian Williams’ chair after Williams fabricated a story about his time covering the Iraq War in 2003.
Quips and reality TV twists from Trump
Trump and his surrogates have been actively tamping down expectations of Trump’s performance, to the point of almost bragging about the candidate’s lack of preparation. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said over the weekend that Trump was not holed up somewhere cramming his head “with microchips and binders.”
Various reports, however, indicate that Trump has in fact been holding regular debate practice sessions. Those same reports suggest Roger Ailes – the longtime Fox News CEO who was recently ousted after multiple allegations of sexual harassment – is helping Trump prepare for the match. That might give some indication of the tactics Trump may hope to enlist: Ailes famously helped coach Ronald Reagan for his debates against Walter Mondale. Ailes’ advice back then? “You didn’t get elected on details, you got elected on themes.”
In advance of the debate, pundits grasping for a way to size up the asymmetrical race have posited Trump’s reality TV experience will be a strength, but it’s unclear how credible that theory is. Trump’s suggestion this weekend that he might seat Bill Clinton’s former mistress Gennifer Flowers in the front row of the debate – a twist straight out of The Bachelor – was roundly panned, then duly abandoned. (It’s worth noting that many people said something similar before the party conventions, too: Trump was so talented when it comes to stagecraft, they said, that his convention would outshine Clinton’s. But in the end, Democrats were the ones with the pyrotechnics.)
Depth and breadth from Clinton
In contrast to Trump’s team, Clinton’s people have made no secret of the fact that she’s been studying very, very hard for what she believes will be one of the biggest moments of her career. Multiple stories about her thick briefing books, practiced attack lines, and all-around methodical preparation have been leaked to the press. This past weekend, details emerged indicating Clinton had enlisted her famously sharp-tongued former aide Philippe Reines to play the role of Trump. (Trump, meanwhile, reportedly rebuffed aides’ pleas to participate in a mock debate with radio host Laura Ingraham playing the part of Clinton.)
Historically, Clinton has done well at debates, even her former rivals admit. David Axelrod, senior strategist to Barack Obama when he ran against Clinton in 2008, wrote in The New York Times this weekend that he knew Clinton to be a formidable and “accomplished debater” who’s “fluent in policy and crisp in delivery.”
One thing Clinton won’t be able to practice her way out of are the pitfalls she’ll likely encounter because of her gender. Monday will be the first time in American history a woman will be on the main presidential debate stage, and that comes with its own set of considerations. As President Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts this weekend, “I think there’s a reason why we haven’t had a woman president before, and so she’s having to break down some barriers.”
Clinton will probably be subject to more commentary about her outfits, the frequency of her smiles and the pitch of her voice than Trump will. And then there are the more practical considerations: Clinton, at 5’4″, is much shorter than the 6’2″ Trump. To offset the difference, the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed to use podiums tailored to each candidate’s height.
But Clinton’s gender could be Trump’s achilles heel too. During the primary, he easily emasculated his male rivals with belittling nicknames – Little Marco, low-energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted – but he faltered when he insulted Carly Fiorina’s face. (Remember this moment?) He also famously ran into trouble when he insulted Megyn Kelly for asking about his degrading remarks about women. That spat snowballed into a feud that compelled Trump to sit out the Fox News debate ahead of the Iowa caucuses; he ended up losing that contest to Ted Cruz.
The other guys
Neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein attracted enough support to participate in the debates. (The Commission on Presidential Debates only invites candidates who have at least 15 percent support nationwide to participate; Johnson is currently polling at about 7.2 percent while Stein’s support stalls out somewhere around 2.3 percent.) Together they sued the commission to be included, but their suit was unsuccessful.
Instead of appearing on stage, Stein plans to boycott outside Hofstra University Monday evening. The Green Party will be busing supporters in from New York City to demonstrate.
Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld, meanwhile, say they will be live tweeting the event. Spokesman Joe Hunter told ABC the pair “will be making themselves available to the media, watching the debate with great interest, and will be anxious to point out how a third voice, representing millions of independent voters disenfranchised by the Republican and Democrat parties, would better serve the American people.”
Hunter added, “They will be respectful and not interested in any grandstanding for the cameras or inappropriate ‘protests.'”