Debates typically don’t make a huge difference in how an election turns out. But they do often matter on the edges. And this is an edge election if ever there was one. Those few folks who haven’t made up their minds or who are parked in a third-party candidate’s stable for now but are moveable will make the difference in this election. The country, as always, is pretty much split among the partisans for each side.
The shrinking middle will, again, decide this election. People who are in Clinton’s camp are not likely to move to Trump’s, or vice versa.
So, what to expect tonight? No one knows but my guess is we’ll see the same Trump we’ve come to know – unpredictable, who starts out being what in his case represents “presidential” (though I haven’t seen that side of him myself yet; and talking from a teleprompter is not how Lincoln or Washington demonstrated “presidential.”).
On the other side, I expect we’ll see Hillary try to be more personable but, again, she’s who she is. And while people who know away from the cameras say privately she is a much more likeable personality, her public face is not that.
Substantively? Hillary will win on substance if substance matters this year, and it should. Trump didn’t all of a sudden bury himself in policy details to get ready for the debate, it’s not who he is. He gets by on gut, that he is the “change” candidate in this election, and bravado.
The bar is lower for Trump to come out well. The bar is high for her. That’s unfortunate because too often the media after the fact becomes a who-wins-and-who-loses discussion. With a low bar, it’s easier for him to win – of course in my mind serving as President is always a high bar. But that’s so old school.
Holt also will be judged. Was he fair? Did he call out misstatements of facts by the candidates?
I’ve gone back and forth on this question. While I don’t want Holt to become the issue, I do want Holt to be the reporter – and reporters should hold candidates, all candidates, to one bar – the truth. He can’t interrupt on every questionable fact that will be uttered tonight – if he did, he’d probably get the bulk of air time. But he has to find the right combination of allowing the candidates to fact check each other and his saying, “Mrs. Clinton/Mr. Trump that just isn’t true because...” A tough spot to be in but he’s a journalist and that is his job. His role isn't to be liked but to get accurate information to the public.
Partisans will come away from tonight thinking their candidate “won” but the question really is, did the country win by witnessing an honest debate that doesn’t rest on untruths, lies, misstatements and name-calling but on a fair representation of who deserves to win this election.