When it comes to demonstrating a mastery of policy, Hillary Clinton should be positioned to ace the first 2016 presidential debate on Sept. 26.
Her long record in government service and self-described wonky love of policy detail gives her a decided edge over her Republican rival, Donald Trump, a neophyte to electoral politics who has often been light on specifics, such as how he plans to defeat the Islamic State and how he would pay for his proposed tax cuts.
But according to Democrats close to the former secretary of State, Clinton is honing another skill set as she prepares to spar with the GOP’s most unconventional candidate since fall debates became a mainstay of presidential campaigns..
“If we knew this was going to be a debate about issues, I would say Hillary Clinton will blow him out of the water,” said Maria Cardona, a former senior adviser to her 2008 campaign. “We all know that’s not going to be the kind of debate this is,” she said. “He will transform that debate stage into a reality show.”
"We're preparing for whatever Trump shows up," communications director Jennifer Palmieri told USA TODAY, declining to provide specifics.
The Democratic presidential nominee’s challenge is to intercept his rhetorical jabs, matter-of-factly highlight his controversial rhetoric and policies — like his proposal to ban immigration from Muslim nations — and encourage him to show flashes of his temperament, for instance, by questioning his business record. She must quickly pivot off subjects like the 2012 Benghazi terror attack in Libya, her private email server and her recent remarks that many of the GOP nominee's supporters are “deplorable,” all points Trump is likely to hammer.
With recent concern about the state of her health and Trump attacking her as "weak" on terrorism, she’ll also want to project an image of vitality and strength. Polls showing a tight race underscore the imperative of going on offense against Trump. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she's got to do it all while appearing more “likable." The unfavorable ratings of the two candidates are similar (Clinton is at 56% and Trump at 54%), according to a recent CNN/ORC poll.
As the first woman to lead a major U.S. political party's ticket, that’s harder than it appears. Social science research shows that women are often penalized for appearing strong and authoritative. “It’s hard to be likable and be tough and strong,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster close to the campaign. Indeed, in surveys in 2014 and 2015 by Burning Glass Consulting, one of Clinton’s main challenges with women voters was a sense that she’s overly ambitious.
These pressures could be tricky to navigate given the Clinton team's recent focus on softening her image. The Democratic presidential nominee told a website called Humans of New York that she knows she "can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional," because, she said, "I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions." She also released a video highlighting her relationship with a breast cancer patient and has been making herself more accessible to the media for questions.
The stakes are significant, with a recent ABC News poll showing nearly a quarter of Americans say the debates will have a major impact on their choice for president.
Trump also has significant challenges — he’ll be pressed to articulate policy details in a way he hasn’t before. And his penchant for lobbing personal attacks may be riskier opposite a female than it was on a GOP primary stage largely crowded with men. Yet Clinton can’t assume that Trump will self-destruct. “There were (many) Republicans who felt the same way,” said Lake, referring to his vanquished primary challengers.
Clinton faces higher bar
Trump has made numerous false statements throughout the campaign. Politifact, in its semiannual review, rated 60% of Trump’s major claims false, to 13% of Clinton's, including his repeated claim that he opposed the Iraq invasion before it happened.
Trump's wide base of support suggests the public may have accepted his tendency to misstate the facts, said Ed Rogers, a Republican campaign consultant who served under President George H.W. Bush. What's more, Clinton is a more experienced debater than Trump. “The bar is low for him and high for her,” said Rogers, who's been openly critical of Trump. “He has to just not be an idiot," said Rogers.
This "low bar," according to the campaign, is their biggest concern. "He should be treated as an equal," said Palmieri. "What I’m worried about is the low expectations, the grading him and judging him on a curve," she said. It’s also unclear whether or how often the moderators will correct him. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who is hosting the final forum, has said it's not his job "to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.”
The problem is “the public won’t necessarily recognize they are incorrect,” said Lake. “A lot will depend on the moderators. This is a huge variable,” she said. “Are they going to hold Trump accountable? It’s very hard for her to be the only person trying to do so.”
A Gallup review of debate history underscores the cause for concern. In 2000, then-Texas governor George W. Bush was considered a less able debater than Democrat Al Gore, who had an 8-point lead before the first debate on Oct. 3. Although a Gallup survey that night found 48% of watchers thought Gore won, to 41% who chose Bush, "the post-debate media spin may have been more favorable to Bush," Gallup says. Polling in the first three days afterward showed the race tied at 43%.
Can she play to her strengths?
One of Clinton's greatest strengths is her unflappability, and her 11-hour testimony last October before the House special Benghazi committee is the barometer aides say indicates her ability to withstand significant emotional and physical stress.
The potential for unexpected attack lines is significant considering Trump's closest advisers include Republican operatives Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, the conservative website that’s fanned rumors about her health, and Roger Stone, a strategist known for his use of hard-edged opposition research.
If Trump lobs personal attacks, her response should be strong but sympathetic — and not defensive, said Cardona. She must “let her emotions show through in a way that makes her look human,” but mindful of gender stereotypes, not “overly emotional,” she said. In a Tuesday appearance on "The Steve Harvey Show," Clinton said she's ready. "I can take that kind of stuff. I’ve been at this. And I understand it’s a contact sport."
The potential for such psychological warfare increased after what were once Internet conspiracy rumors about Clinton’s health went mainstream due to footage of her stumbling as she left a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony. Her campaign later announced she was suffering from pneumonia. Trump has said she doesn’t have the “stamina” to occupy the presidency and his surrogates have also been fanning speculation about her health. On Tuesday, Trump mocked her for taking a day off the trail, which her aides said was for debate preparation.
Hillary Clinton is taking the day off again, she needs the rest. Sleep well Hillary - see you at the debate!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2016
It was during the 1988 campaign, when Ailes was advising the George H.W. Bush campaign, that Democrat Michael Dukakis was politically damaged by rumors about his mental health. Even then-President Ronald Reagan fanned the flames by saying ‘I won’t pick on an invalid’ at a press conference. Dukakis also “had to go out walking in ridiculous running shorts to prove he was fit,” said Matt Bennett, who was a junior aide at the time.
There are also real risks for Trump.
The real estate billionaire’s alpha male attack instincts — displayed during the primaries when he mocked Sen. Marco Rubio for sweating and branded Sen. Ted Cruz “Lyin Ted” — could work in her favor. During the primaries, Trump saw a backlash after he disparaged the looks of former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina.
In Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, Republican Rick Lazio’s campaign all but fell apart after he walked over to her with a piece of paper demanding she sign a pledge against soft money, a move that came off as bullying. And President Obama’s quip in 2008 that “you’re likable enough, Hillary” was considered one of his worst debate moments.
Last week on Fox News, Trump would not rule out personal attacks, saying he'll treat Clinton "with great respect unless she treats me in a certain manner, in which case that will be the end of that."
In 2014, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now a Trump surrogate, offered some advice to any Republican facing off with the former first lady and U.S. senator. He gave an interview to Politico in which he opined on the best way to beat her.
“The wrong way is to be too aggressive, and be too mean, and to ever get personal,” said Giuliani. “The right way to do it is on policy and on true contribution,” he said.