Clinton vs. Trump debate prep: How do you ‘win’ a presidential debate in 2016?


Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have shared their preparation strategies for the upcoming first general election debate, prompting the question of which is more important to voters: policy or personality?

By Gretel Kauffman, Staff SEPTEMBER 22, 2016 

The first general election presidential debate is rapidly approaching, and its two participants are gearing up with seemingly opposite preparation strategies.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, in typical debate prep fashion, has been “doing her homework” with the help of a team of political and media strategists, The Wall Street Journal reports. Her week has been filled with regular rehearsals and a daily review of materials that include briefing books on opponent Donald Trump’s policy and behavior and films of his previous primary debates, Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for the Clinton campaign, told reporters on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, less has been shared about the debate preparations of Mr. Trump, the Republican candidate, who will continue to campaign throughout the week into Saturday evening. Trump, who drew unprecedented television audiences with his off-the-cuff debating style during the Republican primary debates, told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in June that he didn’t want to over-prepare for the general election debates.

“Obviously I will be practicing, but I don’t want to put so much practice in that all of a sudden, you’re not who you are,” he said.

The build-up to Monday’s event, expected to draw the highest television audience for a single debate in history in the midst of an election with an usually high number of undecided voters, has many wondering which is truly more important to the millions of Americans watching at home: policy or personality?

“Ordinarily, I would say that the candidates should appear presidential and … stay on message,” says William Benoit, professor of communications at Ohio University in Athens, Oh., in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

On the other hand, he adds, “Mr. Trump has achieved popularity by saying things that many … think are unpresidential. I think many voters have shifted their idea of what ‘presidential’ means.”

But that popularity may not be sustainable in the world of general election debates, communications experts say. Whereas Trump was able to draw attention to himself in a sea of on-stage Republican candidates with his brash remarks, similar behavior may not translate well to the general election stage, says Alan Schroeder, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.

“Certainly one of the objectives of any primary campaign is to separate yourself from the pack, because it always starts off with a large group,” Professor Schroeder tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “The combination of him already being a famous person and then using the debates to really heighten that” was “quite important in him winning over enough voters to become the nominee.”

However, he continues, “some of the things that made him kind of compulsively watchable in the primary debates could maybe backfire on him in the more sober, more intimate setting of the general election debate.”

Still, when sharing the stage with a candidate known for his showmanship, Ms. Clinton may have a tougher job ahead of her than Trump, suggests Craig LaMay, associate professor at Northwestern University and co-author of the book “Inside the Presidential Debates.”

“My view is you can’t win [a debate] but you sure can lose one,” Professor LaMay explains in a phone interview with the Monitor. “I think it’s not so much that one candidate wins, it’s that one candidate loses.” He cites as examples Al Gore, who sighed repeatedly at the podium during a debate against George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012, at which he appeared “unprepared and uninterested.”

Clinton, he says, “has more to lose, because we expect less from [Trump].”

Others say policy ultimately takes precedence over performance.

There’s “always a performance element” in debates, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. But although the “showmanship of Donald Trump in particular may be increasing the likelikhood that people come to debates,” she tells the Monitor in a phone interview, “the electorate doesn’t come to debates in order to make an assessment of showmanship.”

Of course, LaMay says, “the non-substantive stuff is not irrelevant,” as the demeanor of candidates is important to many voters wondering about future relations with other world leaders. “A lot of it is about how candidates compose themselves.”

Ideally, a candidate will display a combination of substantive policy knowledge and personality, says Schroeder, pointing to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and John F. Kennedy as examples of presidents who “were very effective as performers on television” but “also had fluency with the content of the things they were talking about.”

Ultimately, though, experts say, while the potential of the debates this year to sway voters is slightly greater than usual considering the high number of Americans who are undecided, such events typically don’t determine the outcome of an election.

“They don’t ordinarily change enough minds to affect an electoral outcome,” Ms. Jamieson says. Still, “debates are important even if they don’t change minds, because they increase knowledge.”


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