By AFFAN CHOWDHRY
Monday, September 26, 2016
Reality television has never quite seen anything like The Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Show: near-fainting spells, sudden jaunts to hated Mexico, charges of bigotry and sexism and an overall toxicity that far exceeds your typical U.S. presidential race.
On Monday night, the show kicks off its finale, with the first of three live debates over the autumn that will grip tens of millions of viewers worldwide and provide a televised spectacle as two of the most unpopular and controversial presidential candidates share the same stage and slug it out.
THE GENRE: BORN IN 1960
With the emergence of the television age in the 1950s came the first set of presidential debates.
The four debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election gave Mr. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, the edge. As one debate producer later recalled, Mr. Nixon had the on-camera appearance of "death warmed over."
The presidential debates would skip the 1964, 1968 and 1972 elections and return in 1976 before a studio audience. They have remained a fixture ever since.
In 2016, there are three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate scheduled.
According to Alan Schroeder, professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, the debates are a cornerstone of U.S. politics for two reasons: They come late in the marathon election cycle and they force the candidates to give up control and step away from the choreographed contexts on the campaign trail in front of adoring crowds.
WHO'S WATCHING AND HOW
The audience is expected to exceed the 46.2 million households, or the estimated 67.2 million viewers, who watched the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney four years ago.
Experience: Real estate billionaire and TV showman
Debate experience: 12 Republican debates in 2015 and 2016
Debate style: Prickly; combative; dismissive; unprepared Hillary Clinton
Experience: U.S. Secretary of State; U.S. Senator; first lady
Debate experience: Dozens of debates going back to her 2000 and 2006 Senate races and her 2008 and 2016 presidential bids
Debate style: Methodical as a lawyer; versed like a policy wonk; a seasoned debater
Each debate starts at 9 p.m. ET and lasts 90 minutes without commercial breaks and takes place in front of a live audience that is advised not to interrupt with applause, laughter or jeering.
Audience tickets are given to each political party and the university hosting the debate. The universities generally use a lottery system open to students. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which schedules and oversees the general election debates, also hands out some tickets.
For the second presidential debate, the audience is made up of uncommitted voters picked by the Gallup polling firm. Some of those audience members will be selected to ask questions in the townhall format.
Episode 1: The much-anticipated moment when the two rivals first appear together on stage takes place tonight at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Episode 2: The second presidential debate on Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., will allow voters to put questions to the candidates.
Episode 3: The third and final debate on Oct. 19 takes place at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.
DOS AND DON'TS: HILLARY CLINTON
1. Do not be dismissive The presidential debates will be a historic moment - the first time a female U.S. presidential candidate takes the stage. Ms. Clinton is acutely aware of how gender dynamics can play out on the campaign trail, as she recently told the blog Humans of New York.
"I'll go to these events and there will be men speaking before me, and they'll be pounding the message, and screaming about how we need to win the election. And people will love it. And I want to do the same thing. Because I care about this stuff.
But I've learned that I can't be quite so passionate in my presentation."
The reason is simple, according to Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. If women get excited or passionate about something, it can be seen as if they are unstable. Why is she screaming? Why is she yelling at me? She seems out of control.
How Ms. Clinton handles Mr. Trump's likely debate-stage zingers will be another navigation of the minefield of gender dynamics that female politicians face, says Prof. Dittmar. "You want to counter him on substance and not be dismissive of him in a way that might resonate in all different ways, but for women in particular, may come across as 'bitchy.' " 2. Do try to needle your opponent One of the biggest challenges facing Ms. Clinton is how to expose her rival on the debate stage on the temperament question, according to Prof. Dittmar.
"Hillary Clinton has now made this the cornerstone of her argument against Donald Trump - that he's temperamentally unfit to be president. So will that come out [and how] will she try to demonstrate that?" There is one way to get under Mr. Trump's skin. Last year, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and presidential candidate Carly Fiorina attacked Mr. Trump's business record, mountains of debt and casino bankruptcies. The underlying critique was that Mr. Trump uses other peoples' money at failed businesses not unlike how politicians use public money to create bad government programs.
3. Do improvise The Democratic presidential candidate is an expert debater and can avoid appearing robotic while rolling with the punches, according to Prof. Schroeder.
"There's this great quote from Bill Clinton who likened presidential debates to playing jazz. He said, there's a melody line and you've got to remember what that melody line is and you need to play the song enough that people are able to recognize what it is.
"But you also need to be able to riff, and you also need to have some fun with it, and I think Hillary does do that."
4. Do connect with ordinary voters Ms. Clinton's attributes when it comes to debating on live television are numerous, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Pennsylvania.
"Hillary Clinton is an extremely strong debater. If the standard for debate is capacity to engage in argument quickly with apt evidence, she's got a lawyer's instinct to go for the core of an issue and she's got a very strong command of policy detail."
But in that strength is also a weakness that translates into an inability sometimes to connect with audiences, added Prof. Jamieson.
5. Do not forget Trump's own words An effective debate strategy for Ms. Clinton could lie in the power of Mr. Trump's own words.
On the campaign trail, the Democratic candidate has used the strategy effectively, according to Prof. Dittmar.
"You've seen that from the Clinton campaign, where she says: 'Look I don't need to imply anything, I'll just read his words. I'll read what he said or tweeted and let you decide for yourself.' " In a debate setting, forcing Mr. Trump to respond to his most incendiary comments about women, Mexicans and Muslims could be a smart low-risk strategy, she added.
But there is one pitfall: Ms. Clinton could come across as too focused on tearing down her rival rather than building herself up, said Prof. Dittmar.
DOS AND DON'TS: DONALD TRUMP
1. Do your prep There is nothing as important as doing your homework when it comes debate preparation.
Mitt Romney set a record four years ago when he took part in 16 complete, start-to-finish mock debates, according to Northeastern University's Prof. Schroeder.
It paid off: Mr. Romney trounced President Barack Obama in the first debate. The White House incumbent was widely seen as flat and lacklustre against an enthusiastic and forceful challenger. But one strong debate performance was not enough to oust Mr. Obama on election day.
According to several U.S. media reports, Mr. Trump is following an unconventional debate prep regimen: no mock debates or thick binders to go over. Instead, Mr. Trump holds conversations with senior aides and exudes typical Trumpian overconfidence.
It could well be a head fake. But if it is true, Mr. Trump is on treacherous ground. In the past, he has shown incomplete understanding of U.S.-China trade policy and details of the nuclear defence triad, said Prof. Jamieson.
"There just seem to be very large gaps in what he knows. So the question is can they get him up to speed on those? Two or three serious errors about consequential matters that speak to the presidency could disqualify his candidacy in a debate."
2. Do stay in your lane In her 2000 U.S. Senate race, Ms. Clinton faced her Republican opponent in a televised debate.
At one point, Rick Lazio walked over to where Ms. Clinton was standing with a piece of paper and asked her to sign a pledge against soft money in political campaigns.
The move backfired, said Prof. Dittmar.
"In political practitioner world, that's a big no-no for male candidates. Don't look so aggressive directly to the woman candidate. And not that you can't attack her and rebut her policy issues, but that getting into her personal space really had a backlash effect for Rick Lazio."
3. Do not lie It is a pretty basic rule.
But Mr. Trump has routinely played with the truth. For example, he has claimed that he opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That is widely seen as untrue, according to independent factcheckers.
During the debate, there will be several layers of fact-checking.
Past presidential debate moderators have rarely stepped in to set the record straight and there is ongoing discussion about the role of moderators.
Expect Ms. Clinton to keep her rival honest. Also, look to the news organizations and cable networks to play a more robust fact-checking role, said Prof. Jamieson.
"There's a high level of fact-checking this year.
You're actually seeing the broadcast and cable networks fact-checking in real time by putting corrections up on the screen sometimes as the candidates are speaking."
4. Do not let her get under your skin Mr. Trump's maxim is: If you get hit, hit back.
That is what he demonstrated during more than a dozen Republican primary debates.
Ms. Clinton's aim in the presidential debates is to get Mr. Trump to commit an error by pressing him on immigration, the campaign's ties to racist groups, his business bankruptcies and allegations of fraud at Trump University.
Trump surrogates such as former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich are advising Mr. Trump not to let his rival get under his skin.
5. Do not be rude Mr. Trump can get rattled on the debate stage.
During Republican primary debates over the winter, he routinely used schoolyard taunts to refer to his rivals on live television as "Little Marco" (about Marco Rubio) and "Lyin' Ted" (about Ted Cruz).
The presidential debates are a completely different setting, explained Prof. Schroeder.
"What works is finding the sweet spot in terms of being aggressive toward your opponent without crossing the line into rudeness. I think that will be a difficult challenge for Trump."
6. Do remember what you're auditioning for There is a lot of focus on winning the debates.
Often, the emphasis ends up on the stumbles and zingers that happen on the debate stage.
According to Prof. Jamieson, there is a more fundamental question at the heart of the presidential debates: What do the candidates need to show in order to demonstrate their capacity to govern and their worthiness of the presidency?
"In general, their performances in debates is validating for people who already support them. So in general, candidates appear knowledgeable, in general candidates are accurate in debates, in general they appear thoughtful in debates. This year may be the exception. The question is: What does Donald Trump do in a debate?"
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: THE GLOBE AND MAIL