WASHINGTON, September 26, 2016 — The history of presidential debates is a history of losers, not winners. No one has ever won these debates; they only lose.
Richard Nixon sounded like a winner in his 1960 debate with John Kennedy, but a knee injury, hospitalization, and his refusal to wear makeup made him look dishonest. Kennedy didn’t win; Nixon lost.
Gerald Ford accidentally freed Poland from Soviet domination in his debate with Jimmy Carter. Michael Dukakis managed to look like a chipmunk, Al Gore rolled his eyes and sighed his way into comparisons with ex-wives, and Mitt Romney inartfully filled his binders with women.
There is scant evidence that winning a debate does the winner much good, but losing badly or memorably can stop the loser’s momentum and turn the tide.
The debates aren’t the time or place for bold policy proposals or grand visions. No one introduces a new plan for world peace or tax reform at a presidential debate. They’re a place to be careful and avoid messing up. They’re a place to stick with talking points honed on the stump. They’re a place to be reassuringly boring.
They have some value even so. The debates give millions of people their first look at the candidates under pressure. The candidates may not say much, but they get to say it presidentially. They get to show their poise, their ability to think on their feet, and their gravitas. If they do that, they don’t win, but they don’t lose, either.
In most years, anyway. Tonight’s debate isn’t a regular debate and this isn’t most years.
The expectations for Donald Trump are astonishingly low. The media have written him off as a racist buffoon, and ignoramus and a braggart. Trump has done his best to make it easy for them. For all that, he’s in a statistical dead heat with Hillary Clinton, who has angrily protested that she should be 50 points ahead.
So low are the expectations for Trump, and so strong is his reputation for erratic, extemporaneous bombast, that if he manages to be restrained, gracious and mostly accurate, he could blow Clinton out of the water. He could win outright. His past performances don’t make that seem likely, but if he only persuades people that he isn’t the monster the media say he is and that they aren’t deplorables for voting for him, they might decide that they can vote for him without guilt.
Clinton’s situation is different. She’s not an unknown. She doesn’t have to show anyone who she is or persuade anyone that she isn’t insane. She lives in a world of policy wonks and is fully expected to know her Aleppo from her nuclear triad.
Trump wins if he over performs; Clinton loses if she underperforms. It’s almost impossible for Clinton to do so well that she knocks it out of the park, convincing viewers that not only is she smart and well briefed, but funny, warm and humane. She can’t win, so her task is not to lose. If she’s on her toes, that shouldn’t be hard.
Trump can easily lose. But he just might win. The odds are against it, but the prospect adds some excitement to this matchup.
The big variable is Trump. If he’s warm and thoughtful—that is, if he’s completely the opposite of what we expect—he’ll be on his way to crushing Clinton. If he’s the Trump we’ve seen all year, it will be Clinton’s game to lose.