US Elections 2016

Face-off in New York in next week's presidential debate

Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump at NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York on Sept 7. When Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump step on the debate stage together for the first time next week, it will be political theatre on the scale of the Super Bowl
Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump at NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York on Sept 7. When Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump step on the debate stage together for the first time next week, it will be political theatre on the scale of the Super Bowl or the World Cup Final, as upwards of 100 million, or close to a third of the US population, are expected to tune in.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Pressure is on both candidates as high-stakes debate could be potential game-changer, especially in an extremely tight race

A record number of Americans are expected to be glued to their TV sets when Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump step on the debate stage together for the first time next week on Monday.

If nearly 70 million tuned in four years ago to watch President Barack Obama and Mr Mitt Romney go head-to-head, upwards of a 100 million - close to one-third of the population - are expected to tune in this time.

It will be political theatre on the scale of the Super Bowl or the World Cup Final.

DREADED FAUX PAS

The worst thing that can happen in this debate is the gaffe - the thing that you say that no one can agree is good, and might show a big hole in your potential ability to be president.

CORNELL UNIVERSITY DEBATE EXPERT SAM NELSON 

TRUMP'S LIKELY STRATEGY

If the race is tight as it is today, then we will likely see a more presidential Trump since he will be focused more on just convincing that last group of people that worry about his temperament. But if the polls swing back in Hillary's favour, I think he will revert to a more aggressive style, hoping to really make an impact.

MR AARON KALL, the director of debate at the University of Michigan 

DANGER OF OVER-PREPARATION

I believe you can prep too much for those things. It can be dangerous. You can sound scripted or phony - like you're trying to be someone you're not.

REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE DONALD TRUMP, who is taking a more casual approach to preparing for the debate than his rival.

  • WHEN ARE THE DEBATES? 

  • Presidential debates: Donald Trump v Hillary Clinton

    SEPT 26 Hempstead, New York

    OCT 9 St Louis, Missouri

    OCT 19 Las Vegas, Nevada

  • Vice-presidential debate: Mike Pence v Tim Kaine

    OCT 4 Farmville, Virginia

That there is heightened interest in this year's match-up is down to a combination of the high stakes involved and the real likelihood that it is going to be an entertaining no-holds-barred encounter.

"Some of it is simply because Trump is in it," said Mr Patrick Waldinger, assistant director of debate at the University of Miami. "He is unpredictable, and he is known as a showman in terms of all his insults and things like that. I think this absolutely is entertainment to American voters."

That the duo are locked in an extremely tight race only heightens the drama.

After weeks of appearing like it was going to be a runaway election for Mrs Clinton, the race has tightened considerably. Several recent polls now put the Democrat and the Republican dead even nationwide, with Mr Trump even edging out Mrs Clinton in key swing states such as Florida and Ohio.

And with the history of presidential debates littered with anecdotes of little things seeming to turn the tide, the 90 minutes the two will share on stage next Monday could be a game-changer.

Cornell University debate expert Sam Nelson said that both sides will be doing their best to avoid any major missteps.

"The worst thing that can happen in this debate is the gaffe - the thing that you say that no one can agree is good, and might show a big hole in your potential ability to be president," he said, adding that it is not simply about getting the facts right, but also appearing likeable," he said.

"It (the debate) is an opportunity to show your personality. If you come across as mean and nasty and not a likeable person, people who don't know about you will think this is how you act all the time."

In the colourful history of American presidential debates, many a candidate has fallen foul of the subtle cues. Mr Al Gore, for instance, took flak for sighing, while former president George H.W. Bush famously got caught checking his watch.

Gaffes aside, debate experts say the two will likely have almost diametrically opposing goals.

 

Mrs Clinton - who many deem elitist and untrustworthy - will have to try to convince Americans watching that she is not the stiff political animal she has been made out to be. Mr Trump meanwhile will have the opposite task of trying to prove that he has substantial policy ideas and the temperament to be president.

With the debate taking place in New York in the immediate aftermath of a blast, which left 29 people injured, it also means the argument of who is more able to deal with the threat of terrorism will be a key focus.

Thus far, the two candidates appear to be taking different approaches to preparation.

The former secretary of state has reportedly been going through a very thorough process.

She has been poring through briefing books outlining current domestic and global issues, as well as positions Mr Trump has taken. Mrs Clinton has also been watching videos of the 12 primary debates Mr Trump was involved in, trying to discern what attacks worked.

The campaign has also talked to psychologists and the ghostwriter of Mr Trump's book Art Of The Deal to get a better understanding of the tycoon's insecurities.

Her campaign has said she will not attempt to provoke her rival, but observers note that a Trump outburst - not unlike the one where he decided he needed to defend the size of his manhood - could be a boon to Mrs Clinton's chances.

For his part, Mr Trump is reportedly not engaging in the same sort of thorough study that Mrs Clinton is, preferring informal chats with advisers. "I believe you can prep too much for those things," he said in an interview with The New York Times. "It can be dangerous. You can sound scripted or phony - like you're trying to be someone you're not."

The real estate mogul is even said to be resisting the idea of engaging in mock debates.

Indeed, Mr Trump took a notably cavalier attitude towards his earlier debates. In the week before the kick-off primary debate in Cleveland - in what would have been his first political debate - Mr Trump spent time attending a golf tournament in Scotland.

"He is an unorthodox candidate and an unorthodox prep is consistent with his whole philosophy," said Mr Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan, who recently edited a book on Mr Trump's debate performances titled Debating Donald.

He added that the sort of persona Mr Trump takes next week may well depend on the polls.

"If the race is tight as it is today, then we will likely see a more presidential Trump since he will be focused more on just convincing that last group of people who worry about his temperament. But if the polls swing back in Hillary's favour, I think he will revert to a more aggressive style, hoping to really make an impact."

Yet, experts also warn that the primary debates are markedly different from the upcoming presidential ones, and the same methods may not be as effective.

For one thing, Mr Trump was able to make many demands of debate organisers during the primaries because the cable networks relied on him for ratings. But the presidential debates are run by an impartial commission and will feature no ad breaks, so there is no pressure for TV networks to monetise the programme. Mr Trump thus has less leverage over the organisers and his recent calls for there to be no moderator have been largely ignored.

 

Then there is the fact that there will be only two people on the stage, rather than the 10 that was the norm in primaries.

Said the University of Miami's Mr Waldinger: "In the primaries, when there were multiple people on stage, Trump could get away without saying a ton about policy because the question would later have to be directed to a different candidate. But when the spotlight is on just you and the other person, there is going to be a clear winner and loser."

If there is one thing that both candidates are doing, however, it is to try to downplay expectations. While the Trump campaign points to Mrs Clinton's experience in one-to-one debates, she is pointing to the fact that he vanquished 16 other opponents.

"You don't want to say before the debate that you will go in and crush your opponent. You want to make it sound like you're happy just to be in the same room as the person because they are more skilled, tricky or tactful with debating. That way if you don't crush them, then you don't feel like you have lost," said Mr Nelson.

Ultimately though, who comes out on top will likely rely on who better takes stock of the other.

Said Mr Kall: "They both will be trying to anticipate the responses the other will give and how they will in turn respond to that. This is like chess. You're not just in the moment. You're thinking several moves ahead."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'Face-off in New York'. Print Edition | Subscribe