Experts offer debate dos, don'ts for Clinton, Trump
Monday's presidential debate could draw more viewers than the record-setting 1980 showdown between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter and help decide who will be the leader of the free world, experts say.
“The upcoming debates could be very influential because the race is very tight and the number of undecided, uncommitted and uncomfortable voters is higher than usual,” said Mitchell S. McKinney, a communication professor at the University of Missouri and presidential debate scholar.
Polls released last week showed that as many as 15 percent of voters don't know who they will vote for Nov. 8. RealClearPolitics' average of national polls shows Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton leading Republican Donald Trump by just 2.1 percentage points.
The candidates need to take different approaches in what experts predict could become the most-watched debate ever. The 1980 debate drew 80.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings.
“It matters a lot what Hillary says, and it matters a lot how Trump says it,” said Calum Matheson, director of the University of Pittsburgh's William Penn Debating Union.
Here's a look at what the experts say each candidate must do well and the pitfalls they must avoid during Monday's 90-minute debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
What Trump has to do
McKinney said it's critical for Trump to “show more substance” on policy issues than he did during the primary debates, when he shared the stage with as many as nine other candidates and relied on “glib one-liners, self-praise and bombastic attacks” to stand out.
Showing more substance “could bring around some of those undecided voters and wavering Republicans,” McKinney said.
Beyond what Trump says, he has to exhibit a “presidential comportment and demeanor, not a scary one.”
Matheson, however, argued that Trump has appealed throughout his campaign “to a group of people who don't want him to act presidential,” so he shouldn't turn his back on them during the debate and become a completely different candidate.
“Both candidates are fighting for undecided voters, but they're also working to energize their voters and make sure they turn out to the polls,” Matheson said.
What Clinton has to do
Clinton's perceived unlikability and untrustworthiness are “elements that she has to try to address and work on in these debates,” McKinney said.
G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Politics and Public Affairs, agreed: “She has to come across as sympathetic, likable and able to relate to people. She has to have a down-to-earth approach. These are problems she has.”
The RealClearPolitics polling average shows 54 percent of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton.
Madonna said Clinton also might try to “bait Trump into saying something provocative that gets him off message,” but she should be careful in doing so — the tactic backfired for some opponents during the Republican primary campaign.
What Trump cannot do
McKinney said Trump should refrain from dishing out playground-style insults or caustic personal attacks as he did during the primary debates.
And as he tries to show more substance, McKinney said, it'll be important for Trump to avoid what the professor called a “Rick Perry ‘Oops' moment.” During a Republican debate in 2011, the former Texas governor pledged to eliminate three government agencies but wasn't able to name all of them. After naming two, he said, “The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops.”
Matheson agreed: “In very close elections, one mistake or one accident can have a huge impact.”
What Clinton cannot do
Clinton can't remain on the defensive all night. She'll face hard questions and possibly attacks from Trump about how she handled the Benghazi attacks and classified information on a private email server while secretary of State, among other things.
Clinton, who has developed a reputation over the years as being a policy wonk, also needs to avoid “coming across like a schoolmarm,” McKinney said.
It could be difficult because it remains unknown whether moderator Lester Holt will try to “fact check” the candidates if he thinks they make factual errors, as CNN's Candy Crowley did in 2012.
If Trump misspeaks and Holt doesn't correct him, that responsibility would fall to Clinton. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check website PolitiFact said about 70 percent of the campaign claims by Trump that it investigated were mostly false or worse, compared with about 27 percent for Clinton.
“That could be difficult for her if she spends the entire evening fact-checking. If she's seen as the schoolmarm, that sort of approach would not help her build up her likability,” McKinney said, noting that former Democratic nominee Al Gore's likability suffered after he spent an entire 2000 debate “trying to correct (Republican George W.) Bush, disagreeing with Bush and rolling his eyes.”
Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.