A New York Politics Chat: What Can Hillary Do to Beat Trump in the First Debate?

Showdown. Photo: Rhona Wise/AFP; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Monday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will face off in what is expected to be the most widely viewed presidential debate in the history of our (suddenly fragile) republic. With polls tightening amid Clinton’s health woes and Trump’s slightly better behavior, the stakes of Monday’s contest seem higher than ever: The debates are Clinton’s last, best chance to convince a majority of the electorate that handing the nuclear codes to her opponent would be a mistake. But how should she approach that vital task? On Friday, New York Magazine’s team of political commentators — Jonathan Chait, Rebecca Traister, Ed Kilgore, Jesse Singal, and Eric Levitz — joined digital deputy editor Jebediah Reed to discuss this pressing question.

Jebediah Reed: The debate is being described as an epochal, make-or-break event in the election. Do you think that’s true? Which is to say, how important are debates in a polarized electorate?

Ed Kilgore: Usually not so much. Romney’s clear-cut “win” in 2012 had a short-term effect, but it faded.

Jonathan Chait: It faded because Obama won the next two debates. Also, in 2012, you had far fewer undecided voters.

Jesse Singal: It feels more that way than in other recent elections, because Trump seems to defy the political laws we’d like to believe in. Specifically, that at some point you’ll get punished if you endlessly make stuff up and fail to act in accordance with basic-decency norms. I think people are playing up this debate because Trump is, for the first time, smashing into a situation where he will be forced to act like a traditional politician — facing detailed questions, follow-ups, and so on. The head-to-head format doesn’t leave as much room for his normal bluster — it crowds it out in certain key ways.

Jonathan Chait: No question about that, Jesse. Remember, Ted Cruz was dying to debate Trump one-on-one. Trump wanted no part of it.

Rebecca Traister: It is perilous, because any instance in which you have two people genuinely speaking two different languages, on two different planets, in front of the world, is very combustible.

Jesse Singal: Election 2016: We’re Through the Looking Glass Here, People.

Rebecca Traister: My feeling here is there’s very little prediction because we can’t apply historical models to it.

Ed Kilgore: Important background note: This year’s surplus of undecided voters is not composed primarily of people certain to vote who are trying to decide between Clinton or Trump. Many of them are trying to decide whether to vote or not; others are trying to decide between Clinton and the minor-party candidates. That will likely have a big impact on debate strategy, particularly for Clinton.

Jonathan Chait: Most undecideds are low-information voters. Trump is a low-information candidate. Does that make him more appealing to them, or less?

Rebecca Traister: Isn’t it also possible, as many people suggest, that lots of those undecideds are actually people who are not revealing their preferences because of embarrassment in both directions? Or is that something I’ve absorbed from Twitter geniuses that is not, in fact, true?

Jonathan Chait: Everything on Twitter is true.

Ed Kilgore: I don’t think there is any convincing evidence of a “hidden voter” phenomenon in any direction.

Rebecca Traister: I know about there being no evidence that people who are asserting a preference are lying, but I thought it might be different for the undecideds. Or Twitter thought it. And I absorbed and regurgitated it.

Ed Kilgore: Call me literal, but I tend to think the undecided are “undecided.” Though, again, they may be undecided as to whether they will vote rather than their candidate preference.

Jesse Singal: When’s the last time Trump engaged publicly with a woman for such a long and in-depth period? That’ll probably go really smoothly, right?

Rebecca Traister: This is exactly right, Jesse, and I wasn’t going to say it because of my own social shame at being that woman who’s always talking about the woman stuff.

Jesse Singal: And I was going to ask you about it but didn’t because of my own social shame at tokenizing you as the woman who talks about gender stuff. (We are so conscious.)

Rebecca Traister: But I think there is a real thing with men who do not regularly deal, especially professionally or publicly, with women. And in this one respect, I can’t see Trump impressing anyone. The ad today — “Mirrors” — was devastating, I thought. And I have not been big on the HRC ads. But he is AWFUL to women.

Jonathan Chait: I agree the gender dynamic is going to be fascinating. Conventional wisdom holds that Rick Lazio killed his candidacy when he acted too threatening to Clinton in the 2000 Senate race. But it could flip around — as you say, we don’t know.

Jesse Singal: In theory, is the group of viewers, for whom the gender dynamics could matter the most, gonna be these mystical moderate white suburban GOP voters I hear so much about, who are deciding between staying home and voting for Trump? Specifically, the female half of that group?

Rebecca Traister: Right. Hillary is very likely to benefit from Trump being bullying or aggressive or mean. EXCEPT that Hillary has also been known to overplay her hand on this, and if she calls it out too directly, or her campaign goes overboard in making hay or pulling for it when it was ambiguous — as happened in 2008 after the disastrous debate when she and her campaign claimed it was a pile-on — it could backfire.

Eric Levitz: I believe Trump’s remarks toward women and the disabled are his most widely reviled; even Republicans express some misgivings about them when polled.

Jesse Singal: Yeah — his play at this point, to scoop up those nose-holding white GOP voters, is to be viewed as merely gross rather than unforgivably horrible on gender and race stuff.

Rebecca Traister: Yes, it would theoretically matter for women — of every stripe, really, but the ones that it might sway are suburban, white, married women who otherwise vote Republican. And, of course, the “fathers of daughters” contingent.

Jonathan Chait: Isn’t the biggest swing group young left-of-center voters who find Clinton personally corrupt?

Rebecca Traister: I frankly cannot imagine Donald Trump being respectful toward a woman. And, on this front, I cannot imagine Roger Ailes being able to help him out.

Ed Kilgore: Not sure how it fits into the gender construct, but, yes, I’d say HRC’s two key audiences are (a) media, because she must be perceived as “winning,” and (b) Dem-leaning voters who are either thinking about staying at home or voting for Johnson or Stein.

Jonathan Chait: Anything CAN happen, but my most likely expectation is boring: Trump will lose because he’s an ignorant, lazy jerk, and Clinton is smart and good at debating. But you never know. Also, you never know how the media will spin it, and the spin seems to matter a lot.

Rebecca Traister: I think the best public outcome for Hillary is she comes out looking like a knowledgeable, prepared hard-ass under siege by a monstrously awful opponent, à la Benghazi hearings. That was the most recent instance in which I heard even Hillary-skeptical lefties tipping their hats. That is exactly the public profile she should hope to stick, but it takes a lot of alchemy to make sure that all the components work together: that she doesn’t sound too loud or defensive or shrill or Tracy Flick–ish or self-congratulatory or mean or centrist.

Jebediah Reed: How does Hillary appeal both to skeptical young lefties and nose-holding GOP dads? Or does she have to choose one?

Ed Kilgore: It’s an important question. I think she needs to rely on Trump to repel nose-holding GOP dads. If he’s reasonable and “presidential,” she’s lost them anyway. So, yeah, she should focus on voters closer to voting for her already.

Eric Levitz: Agreed. A lot of Trump’s GOP dad-friendly policies are wildly unpopular, and cut directly against the narrative of his candidacy. A recent poll found that voters believe Trump is more likely to “reign in Wall Street” — it seems unlikely that they’re aware he has called for repealing every major post-2008 financial regulation and to establish a moratorium on writing any new ones. Forcing Trump to explain why he thinks Wall Street should be deregulated — and taxes cut on his children’s inheritance — strikes me as a winning play. Polished Republican pols have trouble finessing these donor-class obsessions. Trump would retreat from the issue into bluster, effectively conceding the point. Trump has committed himself to a bunch of policies that he has only ever justified off a teleprompter.

Ed Kilgore: If we are getting around to meta-message, I think HRC needs to project herself as the candidate of “safe change.” Both those words are equally important.

Rebecca Traister: What about steady change? Safe feels like a boner-killer, sorry.

Jonathan Chait: Change With Continuity.

Ed Kilgore: Ha ha. Steady is okay, but big thing is that the undecideds she’s pursuing are insufficiently aware of the gap in stability and predictability between the two candidates.

Jebediah Reed: How should she handle it if he goes hard at her health?

Eric Levitz: Do ten push-ups.

Rebecca Traister: Jack Palance, all the way.

Jesse Singal: Is anyone else terrified she’s going to faint?

Rebecca Traister: I am terrified she is going to cough.

Jonathan Chait: I’ve never got the health thing. Is anybody going to not vote for her because they’re afraid Tim Kaine might become president?

Jesse Singal: Trying to imagine the hypothetical voter who would stay home or switch because of that … nope.

Rebecca Traister: Right. And also, prior to pneumonia, there is seriously nobody with more stamina than Hillary. She’s been on a campaign trail meeting thousands of people for a year-and-a-half. Donald Trump flies home to his own bed every night.

The thing that everyone assumed would be the big gun is him hitting her on Bill and women. Can he even try that now that he’s working with Ailes?

Jonathan Chait: I’ve never understood — he’s going to run as the candidate of sexual propriety? Besides, Hillary was never more popular than when Bill was caught cheating.

Rebecca Traister: I mean the power of it has always been that it doesn’t matter if its hypocritical, it’s gratifying to a major segment of people who want to see her both punished and humiliated. But that segment is already Team Trump. And, yes, it was her high point. Though, that was in the ’90s and our ideas about sex and power have changed radically since then.

Jonathan Chait: I mean, she stayed together with her husband. I have to think that’s more acceptable than Trump’s serial wives approach.

Ed Kilgore: I don’t really think he’s going there. The talk may just be a terror tactic.

Rebecca Traister: I really think logic doesn’t apply to the question of whether Trump pursues this. I think it’s animal, and that it may come in response to him feeling humiliated.

Jebediah Reed: Do you think Ailes/Bannon/Conway have him contained well-enough that that restraint will carry over to the debate stage if she’s trying to provoke him?

Eric Levitz: Yeah, reporting suggests provoking Trump into an ugly personal attack is Team Clinton’s goal. Or one of them.

Rebecca Traister: Yes. And he has to know that. He has to know that his best performance would come simply from being calm and knowledgeable.

Jebediah Reed: Although he must have known that all along — at least since clinching the nomination …

Jesse Singal: You can know something and not know it, you know?

Rebecca Traister: Okay, so that goes to another question. I don’t fully believe that he knows he shouldn’t make crazy racial attacks and then does it anyway. I sort of believe that he thinks he gets his biggest response thanks to those attacks, that no matter what those buttoned-up advisors tell him, THIS is what makes him a tremendous candidate.

Jonathan Chait: One more thing about Trump: He has trouble filling up his allotted time. Has to repeat himself and still doesn’t use it all. I think that becomes more glaring in a two-person debate. In a multi-candidate debate, the ten-second insult works okay.

Eric Levitz: Yeah. To this point, the debates were designed by television networks with an eye toward entertainment value. Now Trump is in a format that isn’t crafted for spectacle, but some stuffy notion of the civic good.

Rebecca Traister: One other thing about this debate and its possible implications: Will there ever have been a more-watched debate?

Ed Kilgore: The first 2012 debate drew 67 million, which was a record. They’re thinking 100 million for this one.

Jesse Singal: It’s such an interesting inversion of the basic dynamic all election, which has been that cameras chase Trump around everywhere and he puts on whatever show he wants to put on. Now he has to show up at a set time for a set span and, in theory, act a certain way and answer certain tough questions.

Rebecca Traister: But I think this goes back to the core question here: What does it look like when he’s in that situation, speaking in public with a woman who is much much smarter than he is?

How Important Is the First Presidential Debate?