What to expect from the first debate? Historic ratings, plenty of attacks and presidential posturing

Posted at 5:00 AM, Sep 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-26 16:07:47-04

The presidential debate Monday night between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will likely destroy ratings records and even (gasp!) steal viewers away from Monday Night Football.

But what else will happen when the Democratic nominee and seasoned debater meets the Republican nominee and reality television star?

Ahead of the debate, which begins at 9 p.m., WCPO asked local political experts for predictions about what may occur when Clinton and Trump take the stage at Hofstra University in New York.

“I think ratings will be ridiculously high. Even though no one is happy (with the candidates), I don’t think they can turn away,” said David Niven, a University of Cincinnati political science professor. “I think it will be like a car accident scenario where people are looking to see something awful.”

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Experts predict a contentious debate, with each candidate trying to take the presidential high road, while simultaneously baiting the other to turn nasty, petty and harsh.

There will be no commercial breaks during the 90-minute debate, to be moderated by Lester Holt of NBC News. Questions will focus on three broad topics:  “the direction of America,” “achieving prosperity” and “securing America.”

Here’s what experts predict will happen:

Clinton will try to bait Trump

One of Clinton’s most famous campaign lines, said during her Democratic National Convention speech, came when she described Trump as "A man you can bait with a tweet.”


On Monday night, Clinton will show if she has the ability to get a rise out of him Trump. She has no doubt spent hours studying his primary debate performances, particularly when candidates such as Ted Cruz tried to provoke him.

“She is studying: ‘What do we will think bait him, and what has baited him in the past,?'” said Sean Comer, Xavier University’s director of government relations. “If you’re Hillary Clinton, the goal is, How do you get him to say something outrageous?”

Trump will try to bait Clinton 

But he will try to do it in a scripted way, with well-prepared zingers designed to make him look presidential. Both sides will seek the high road, but it is especially important for Trump to stay on script.

“Victory for Trump is provoking Hillary,” said Joe Valenzano, chair of University of Dayton’s communications department. “If he can pull out the negative, sort of harsh Clinton, that’s a victory for Trump… If she gets dragged into the mud, she loses.”

But both will be subdued with their attacks 

This is the first time in U.S. history a man and a woman will be on stage during a debate between the two major party's presidential nominees. That's certain to play into how the candidates attack one another in public, said Benjamin Bates, a communications expert at Ohio University. 

Subtly isn't typically Trump's style when it comes to name-calling on social media or in news interviews. However, things could change once he's actually on stage with Clinton. The image of him hurling verbal insults at a woman might not play well with some voters, Bates predicted. Clinton, too, can't be overzealous with her attacks because it might reinforce some negative perceptions people have of her. 

"Donald Trump is seen as a bully ... Hillary Clinton already has a reputation of being this icy, unapproachable person," Bates said. "It's both the public persona and the gender (stereotypes) working together to make this a very difficult, argumentative situation for both of them." 

Clinton will be highly prepared

Niven helped coach former Democratic presidential nominee Martin O’Malley for Democratic primary debates, so he knows firsthand how prepared Clinton can be.

“During the debates she was able to summon a detail like who he appointed as commerce director in Maryland,” Niven said. “I thought, This is a person who studied the briefings. She just knew it.”  

If Clinton wants to appeal to undecided voters, she has to convince them that she is highly knowledgeable and Trump is not.

“She must have absolute and complete mastery of the facts and make Mr. Trump speak in loose generalities,” said University of Dayton marketing professor Randy Sparks. “To those voters who may be sitting on fence, the better educated voters … they may say, 'You know what, at least she knows what’s going on.'”

Trump uses his fans to prepare

Eleven days before the debate, Trump sent an email to his supporters with a 30-question debate preparation survey. It asked them to weigh in on the issues he should address during the debate, and what insults to use against Clinton. He's also likely to rely on his lengthy primary campaign to know what issues appeal most to voters.

“He used the primary process as a national focus group,” Comer said. “He figured out his messaging and what works the best and how to look presidential.”

Terrorism will be a key issue

The recent bombings in New York and New Jersey will almost certainly drive questions related to terrorism.

“Donald Trump with his immigration policies is going to have events supporting him moving into the debate,” Sparks said. “People who are concerned about random acts of terrorism and looking for some sort of sense of reassurance will gravitate toward Mr. Trump.”

Part of Trump’s appeal to voters is that he offers very simple solutions to problems.

“Mrs. Clinton has to convince people that his ideas are either naive or dangerous or both,” Sparks said. “That has to be her line of attack.”

The moderator will be in control

Will the debate take a serious, issues-based tone? Or will it be like watching an episode of HBO's comedy TV show Veep? The moderator will decide, Bates said. He expects Holt will keep the debate issues-driven, but to do so, he will need to fact check the candidates live and force them to stick to only answering the questions. 

"If he doesn't do his job of asking follow up questions and keeping candidates on topic, we're going to be looking at it in terms of entertainment value," Bates said. "Lester Holt, in his position as an anchor on NBC News, is more likely to take a deeper discussion of topics. I'm optimistic he'll do his job." 

If Holt does that, future moderators are likely to follow his lead.  

“Lester Holt will have to take a stand because he’s the first one to moderate," Sparks said. 

De-branding and re-branding

Both sides will use marketing strategy to attack their opponent’s political “brand.” Clinton will try to attack Trump’s brand as being a political outsider by accusing him of actually being a billionaire insider, Sparks said.

Meanwhile Trump will likely try to brand Clinton as “crooked Hillary,” and attack her for lack of transparency and untrustworthiness by bringing up the Clinton Foundation, her email controversy and how she handled her recent illness.

Nobody wins the debate

That’s what Valenzano, who is an expert on campaign rhetoric, fully believes.

“I think the combined effect of all of the debates will actually dampen down voter turnout,” Valenzano said. “It’s gotten incredibly nasty and people are fed up with it. I don’t know who that’s going help."

Some people will watch purely for entertainment value, Sparks said. “There’s a segment of people who are going to watch because they feel it will be solid entertainment,” Sparks said. “Other people will watch just for unpredictability of it. And if it’s not unpredictable, and people don’t hear the zingers, I think people will walk away feeling disappointed.”