What If: Could a debate smackdown shake up the election?
WASHINGTON – Get ready for some must-see TV.
The fall debates are always a big part of any presidential campaign. But with many 2016 voters underwhelmed by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, this year’s debates could well be more influential than usual.
“Because the electorate is so volatile this year, it doesn’t take nearly as much to get a loosely aligned voter to switch their allegiance,” says Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s political institute.
With Trump in the mix, there’s also plenty of potential for shock value.
“Mass audiences are going to be tuning in to look for a smackdown,” says Eric Dezenhall, a Washington crisis management consultant.
In the primaries, Trump grabbed the spotlight in the opening minutes of the first of a dozen GOP debates, when he was the only candidate to refuse to rule out a third-party run for president. He rarely relinquished it, dropping jaws at one point when he matter-of-factly referred to the size of his genitalia.
The nine Democratic debates showcased Clinton as an experienced debater, although the highlight may have been Bernie Sanders’ curt dismissal of all the attention being paid to Clinton’s “damn emails.”
Over the past half-century, general-election debates have offered plenty of moments of televised high drama – but knockouts are rare.
In 1980, a cheerful Ronald Reagan shone in his debate against President Jimmy Carter, scolding him with a gentle “there you go again,” and posing a pointed closing question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Pollsters reported a resulting sharp shift in public opinion, according to Alan Schroeder’s book, “Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.”
Two decades earlier, in the first televised debates, a sickly, fatigued and unprepared Richard Nixon never recovered from his disastrous performance in the first of three 1960 face-offs with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.
This year, given Trump’s unpredictability, says Schroeder: “You’ve got a recipe for a highly combustible situation.”
“For viewers, it creates a scenario that virtually compels them to watch,” he says. “Anything that happens on that stage will therefore be magnified exponentially.”
There are questions about how this fall’s debates will unfold: Trump has been complaining that two of them conflict with NFL games, and expressed concern that moderators might not be fair. He’s said he wants to participate, but hasn’t entirely committed.
The presidential debates are scheduled for Sept. 26, Oct. 9 and Oct. 19. A vice presidential debate is set for Oct. 4.