The Trump-Clinton Debate: What Do They Have To Do To Win?
It's the final debate in what has been a vicious, rancorous campaign to become the next U.S. President. What do Trump and Clinton each have to do to win the debate, and win the White House? Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin draw on their veteran political strategic experience to answer those questions in the ONW Salon.
Tonight is the third and final presidential debate. We are now exactly three weeks before the November 8 election day - I bet you thought you'd never make it!
Polls are showing Clinton with a clear lead though I would be one foolish farmer who starts counting chicken eggs yet.
There are a couple things that I think deserve comment and thought.
One is Trump's claim that the election is rigged. Now, with Trump you can never be sure if this is a strategic message or just him saying whatever comes into his bizarre little mind. I'll go with the former.
I think the effect of saying the election is rigged will be to solidify Trump's vote after voting day. Assuming Trump loses, there will still be an angry, bitter, vengeful Trump Nation demanding a rematch with Trump. This, I think, could be an attempt to make Trump Nation a permanent fixture and give Trump increased leverage within the Republican Party after the election.
Of course, like I said, it could also be because the guy is bonkers.
Another issue has been the powerful voice of the First Lady, Ms. Obama. I think we are going to see more of this type of politics in the last three weeks. Michelle Obama launched an attack on Trump values and pessimism with a heavy dose of traditional, centrist American values and American optimism. The kind Hollywood movies love.
I would expect that in the final weeks the Clinton campaign will attempt to disengage from the discussion with Trump, leaving him punching the wind. Hillary will move to a future-oriented, positive message about great times that are still to come. And after months of this nasty campaign, people will want that message badly.
It's a storybook ending about good and evil. Let's see how disengaged and positive she is in the debate.
Finally, there's the final chapter that is Trump's push. Honestly, with the barrage of negativity coming down on him (and the timing of Tuesday's People Magazine story couldn't be more devastating) I wonder how many people will even hear what he has to say.
Expect the Democrats to leak whatever they have to leak in the most devastating way that will effectively derail, sideline, silence and shut down the Trump campaign.
Meanwhile Clinton heads positive, but I'd be sure her opposition research team will keep her fingerprints a million miles from anything that surfaces about Trump's revolting and possibly criminal behaviour.
It's not only his mind that is bizarre and little, Tom. Thanks to Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair fame, we also know that his ... hands are quite small. (Apologies to everyone reading for descending to Trumpian levels of discourse here - this is one of the consequences of Trump, he drags everyone else down with him.)
And while that may seem like simply an attempt at humour, it has the added virtue of being true. Almost everything he touches turns gets worse. The latest is Billy Bush - that dude was fired from his not entirely serious job at NBC for simply being the guy with Trump when he talked of assaulting women. So you get fired for even being in close proximity to Trump and for laughing at his disgusting antics.
Part of Hilary Clinton’s challenge is that she too suffers from this problem. While there are lots of reasons to be skeptical about the candidacy, her biggest problem right now is people observing how bad she is because she is not further ahead of the nutbar in the polls.
Email servers notwithstanding, nothing is as bad for her as being down there in the gutter with the guttersnipe. He is actually dragging her down, too.
It is arguable that a stronger opponent could beat her. But if she were running against a more conventional candidate, she also wouldn’t face the same degree of constant hate stream, and would not be part of “most unpopular candidates in history” narrative. People might actually compare her to the alternative in a more rational way. It is all beyond ridiculous.
So what does that mean for tonight’s debate? I think Tom is on the right track. Great winning campaigns usually save the homestretch for an ambitious reach to a positive higher calling. You actually want to use the momentum and support you have to bring people together, talk about a better future that includes everyone. More on this later, but I think that is what Hillary has to try to do now.
You can use his own words against him in ads etc., but Clinton should try and move her own narrative to an ambitious, hopeful message. It will take the focus off the ugly personality war and make it more about what America must do, and should do. You might even motivate some people who are now, at best, holding their noses and voting for her because she is not Donald Trump.
Tonight's debate is getting as much billing as a UFC fight night and with about the same amount of trash talk that takes place before those fights. However, unlike the UFC where the trash talking is usually contrived only to build up pay-per-view customers, the presidential debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump is personal and visceral.
Tom is right not to be a "foolish farmer" when counting Trump out, since with all the news that has been hurling around him and his campaign, he is still anywhere from four to eight points behind when you would think he would be losing by 20 points.
That said, I wouldn’t be betting on Trump to win at this point. In fact, the Clinton campaign has completely changed its strategy and is now spending ad dollars in traditionally red states like Georgia, North Carolina and even in Texas.
They are smartly working on the down ticket races and hoping to take back the Senate, which will be easier for them to take than the congressional seats, which have a higher number of Republicans to defeat.
So back to the debate tonight and what the candidates need to do.
For Clinton it comes down to not getting pulled into the negative, low-level battle, which is where Trump will want to take the fight, er, debate. Media and pundits felt Trump did way better in the second debate than he did in the first and they credit his hard-hitting attacks on Hilary as the reason.
Look for more of that from Trump since he seems to be someone who, when backed into a corner, will strike and strike hard. He will bring up the e-mails for sure and the recent claims/allegations that there were Clinton supporters actually working with the State Department to get certain e-mail security classifications lowered so as to not get Hilary into trouble with the leaks.
This will get her on the defensive and will solidify his base, which is about the only thing he can do at this point.
Clinton's greatest weakness is that she has climbed the greasy pole of American politics. The very fact of her climbing to the top is what Trump attacks. In the minds of millions, the fact that she climbed to the top is proof positive that she is dishonest. That in-built bias has supercharged Trump's line of attack the whole way.
And, I believe, we are more judgemental about a woman climbing that greasy pole that we are a man. So it's a strong hit.
Now, I'm no rose-coloured-glasses-blinded-true-believer about Hillary. I just want to point out a natural advantage Trump has on his side.
To Trump, every decision Clinton has made is a bad decision - because it comes from a bad person. And we know she's bad because - greasy pole. So he will continue to point out every trace of grease she has on her shirt. If Hillary tries to explain it away, she's just verifying that it's actually there.
She can't get drawn in. She must disengage and be justified in doing so on the rationale that Donald Trump doesn't possess the values that make him worthy of response. She is above debating with sexual predators, of playing his games, of responding to his lies. An honest response would mean nothing to him.
To disengage and go completely positive is the task - to leave Trump behind as we leave behind a horrible nightmare when we wake up.
That natural advantage that Tom brings up is made all the more powerful by what is the core of Trump’s appeal: the system is broken, the system is rigged against you. And it has been rigged by the moneyed interests. So they are to blame. And Hillary is to blame as she is their spokesperson. And trade deals and the economy are the methods by which it is rigged. And immigration threatens you, too. And so on.
That is a powerful message and would overwhelm Clinton in this election, and in this debate, but for the fact that the messenger is, to understate, deeply flawed. His flaws “step on” that message every day, often changing by the hour. When he gets back to it, as he may tonight, he is on winning ground. So somehow she has to keep him attacking every one of his enemies, while she climbs out of the gutter. This will not be easy to do.
Her tactic of baiting him in the first debate certainly worked. It worked not only during that debate, but, in particular, it had him firing all over the place for the next five days.
She will need to find a way to pivot back and forth from examples of his unfitness and then contrast it with a picture of a positive future, positive enough to make those wanting change to see her as someone more likely than Trump to actually succeed in making some change.
In this argument people conclude that Trump is too flawed, too objectionable, and not credible enough to bring about the change he promises and they hope for.
It could then set the stage for a final week or two where she tries to bring people together and make enough of them feel good about what she wants to do.
More likely, we end up in the lesser of two evil narratives for most of those still willing to be convinced.
I think it is more than climbing the greasy pole that is Hilary's weakness, Tom. Many successful politicians have climbed the same pole and are not hated as much as Hilary.
Hilary's issue is one of entitlement and class establishment vs. populism, which is what the political climate seems to be teetering towards. If this were an election with any other Republican candidate Hilary would be toast. The fact that Trump beat out over a dozen top qualified Republican candidates in the primary and, despite where the campaign has gone, he still hovers around 40%, is simply astounding.
This is not as much about being a Republican or Democrat; it is more about a movement that Trump has somehow tapped into and has cultivated to a point where no matter what he does or says, they are with him and with him until the very end.
This is what causes pundits (and various media outlets) to shudder because his voters are far more likely to vote than hers. In fact, the uglier the campaign gets and the more Hilary gets drawn in, her supporters may very well stay home.
The debate will be nasty, and Hilary will not be able to control it because Trump will dominate and will strike hard and first - remember, the moderator is Chris Wallace of FOX News, which is not insignificant. And the debate is in Las Vegas - how good is that?
I'm sure we are all going to election night parties on November 8th, at which I will be watching the down-ticket races to see if Hilary will have control of the Senate. Those races have become very interesting since so many Republicans have left Trump and are now focusing on their own fights. That will be interesting to watch.
Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance. He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues.