With only five days before Secretary Hillary Clinton and candidate Donald J. Trump face off for the first time on September 26 at Hosfra University in Hampstead, NY for the first presidential debate, it is still unclear what effect the debates will have on their campaigns. With both candidates virtually head to head in national polls, the upcoming debates could have a serious influence on the eventual outcome of the race.
With presidential debates having a long history of being image focused (the most famous example being the first televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy), the outcome is unclear. Trump has received flak in the press for his bombastic and often untrue statements since the very beginning of his presidential run. Many say that this will be the death of him in the debates. However, others suspect that this may actually help him. Trump has rarely apologized for any of his inflammatory comments, a tactic that has surprisingly served him well thus far. Many of his supporters say that he is honest and tells it like it is, unlike, in Trump’s words “Crooked Hillary.” They also support his “anti PC” assertions, comparing him to Clinton, who has garnered a long-standing reputation for being dishonest and untrustworthy, the most commonly cited example being the thousands of emails saved on her private server.
However, despite these possible advantages, Trump has never withstood the rigor of a head-to-head debate. Furthermore, several of his more radical points have largely been said at press conferences. The presidential debates are far more large scale; millions of Americans watch them, and every word the candidate utters is scrutinized and analyzed. Any mistake made during them, however innocent, can be costly. As recently as the 2012 presidential election, during the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney said the infamous “binders full of women” gaffe, a phrase that some have even said cost him the presidency. Precedent dictates that a comment like that could have a negative impact on Trump’s chances at the Oval Office. However, precedent also dictated that Trump would not have passed the primaries.
As for Clinton, her success in the debates will likely largely rely on her ability to make herself likeable to the public. She is often criticized for being awkward or stilted during speeches, and likeability is a very important aspect of presidential debates. A possible advantage for her could be a casual and almost dismissive attitude towards Trump during the debates. At her acceptance of the presidential nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention earlier this July, she cooly disregarded Trump, using his own quotes against him. Notably, she cited him saying that he “knew more about ISIS than the generals do.” After that speech she jumped considerably in national polls. In the wake of recent concerns about her health, the most notable being her dishonesty regarding pneumonia, and the failed bombings in New York, the debates provide a chance for Hillary to secure the presidency, but also the possibility of failure.
Even with so little time between now and the first presidential debate, it is impossible to say who will come out ahead. Trump’s controversial ideas could be the death of him in a debate, but they could also prove helpful. Hillary’s emphasis on her plans and policies could make her seem fit to lead the nation, but concerns about her health and candor could do the opposite. Whatever the final outcome of these debates is, they will mark the next stage of possibly the most unusual election season for the past several years.