For the networks, the blockbuster numbers are tempered by the fact that the debates run without commercials — the Commission on Presidential Debates, not any media outlet, is the sponsor.
But with polls showing the race tied nationally, and Trump having a slight lead in some key swing states, it’s hard to think of any recent cycle where the stakes have been greater going into the first debate, not just for the candidates but the moderator, Lester Holt. The past few days have been about just what his role should be — a questioner who keeps things moving on time or something more, a fact-checker who will challenge the candidates if they utter a significant incorrect statement.
Clinton will get the first question, with two minutes to answer and Trump given two minutes to respond. Then they can respond to each other. The debate will be broken up into six, 15-minute pods.
Even though the debate is running across dozens of networks and platforms, the real ratings race will be in pre- and post- debate coverage, and some advertisers are capitalizing on the exposure. Tecate is even running a commercial, “The Wall,” on Fox News, Univision, and Telemundo that spoofs Trump’s signature pledge to build a border barrier.
While endless amount of hours already has been devoted to analysis of whether a bombastic Trump or a subdued Trump will show up on the debate stage, or if Clinton can come across as likable, there are other factors at play that aren’t getting as much attention but that may play a role in how this debate is measured in who won and who lost:
The Humor Factor. A basic rule of public speaking is to start by putting the audience at ease — often with a joke or self-deprecation. In their first debate in 2012, after President Obama noted that it was his wedding anniversary, Mitt Romney offered a polite quip about having to spend the occasion with him. Much of the humor coming from Clinton and Trump on the campaign trail has been biting and even snarky, so it’ll be interesting to see if they each make a stab at some friendly humor to show their charm and folksiness.
Body Language. There was the Al Gore sigh in 2000, and President George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in 1992. Body language gets overexamined in debates, but there is at least one area where it seems to really matter in connecting with audiences. That is the decision on when to look at the camera and when to look at the moderator — a matter of timing. Obama closed his subpar 2012 debate performance by looking at moderator Jim Lehrer, rather than capping the evening by addressing the viewing audience, as Romney did. Obama also was criticized for not looking enough at Romney when he was talking, as if he were dismissive.
The Audience. The 100 or so guests at Hofstra University are instructed not to clap, hoot and holler during the debate, another big difference that these general election match-ups have from the primaries. So why are there audience members at all? It’s a good question, and the answer seems to be tradition. The host university, Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., gets to fill the crowd with students, while each campaign gets to invite guests. Given that this election has been so chaotic, and the outbursts that have been heard at campaign rallies and the conventions, it wouldn’t be that great of a surprise to see some kind of outburst here, even with tight security.
As for who is in the audience, that has suddenly become an issue, after Trump’s reality show rival Mark Cuban announced that he’d be sitting in the front row (apparently as a guest of the Clinton campaign) and Trump then threatened to invite Gennifer Flowers (who accepted, although Trump’s campaign later said it wasn’t a formal invite). All of this has the air of two campaigns trying to play mind games in advance of the debate, and ignores a point. If the candidates are good at what they are doing, they shouldn’t be paying any attention to the audience anyway.
The Moderator. Chances are pretty good that Lester Holt will get criticized by Trump or Clinton supporters, given the emphasis that has been placed on just what role he should take. (Trump also did a bit of expectations setting by claiming that Holt was a Democrat, when he is in fact a registered Republican, according to the New York Times). But if Holt comes across as even handed to the general public, he will elevate his profile in an environment where the public gives the media low marks when it comes to trust. It’s a challenging assignment, and even though it seems like a thankless task for Holt, there’s also a lot of upside. These debates also tend to focus on substantive policy questions rather than the candidates personal faults.
The Post Punditry. After the debate, just about every news organization will go wild with analysis, instant polls, focus groups, and spin. It could turn out that the debate is a draw and the race won’t have changed all that much. “Saturday Night Live,” which returns on Saturday, inevitably will feature a skit riffing on the debates, and they tend to amplify the memorable moments or mannerisms that garner the most attention — and perhaps have the greatest impact.
The irony is that, as much as is riding on tonight’s debate, the next debate on Oct. 4 so far has been treated like an afterthought. It’ll be between the two vice presidential contenders, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine.