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The long and volatile 2016 presidential campaign enters its final chapter Monday night at 9 p.m. ET with the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at Hofstra University on Long Island with NBC’s Lester Holt as the moderator. The 90-minute, commercial-free face-off will be carried live across broadcast and cable (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, Fox News, Fox Business Network, CNBC, MSNBC) as well as C-SPAN and PBS. Facebook and Twitter will partner with ABC and Bloomberg, respectively, to live-stream the debate.
The campaign already has been unprecedented in terms of viewer interest. Fox News set a record for a primary debate with last year’s first GOP event pulling in 24 million viewers. And many expect Monday’s debate to be the most-watched political event ever, easily surpassing the 67.2 million who tuned in for 2012’s premiere debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama, and certainly challenging the 80 million who tuned in for Ronald Reagan’s first debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
“They will be on the same stage at the same time talking to each other and that changes the whole dynamic,” says Jim Lehrer, who as a former PBS anchor has moderated a dozen debates. “And it makes it very interesting,” adds Lehrer, laughing. “It could be more than interesting.”
Here are five things to watch for on Monday night:
1. Will Trump call Clinton “Crooked Hillary”?
One of Trump’s most memorable and consistent — if un-presidential — tactics has been his lacerating sobriquets for his opponents. But Trump seems to be undecided about the wisdom of calling Clinton “Crooked Hillary” to her face. The No. 4 question on a “TRUMP Debate Preparation Survey,” sent out in a Sept. 16 fundraising email, was: “Do you think Trump should refer to Hillary as ‘Crooked Hillary’ on stage? Yes; No; No opinion; Other, please specify.” One wonders if “please specify” means he’s soliciting for additional nicknames.
2. Will Holt keep the candidates on track?
Holt was the lead moderator in January’s Democratic primary face-off in South Carolina among Clinton, Sanders and Martin O’Malley (remember him?). And he earned high marks for giving the candidates room to engage with each other while also keeping the debate moving along. However, the Democrats at that stage of the race were fairly civil to one another, certainly much more so than their Republican counterparts. While Holt has interviewed Trump for Nightly News, he’s never had to contend with him in a debate setting. (NBC News did not get the chance to moderate a planned GOP primary debate in February; after sister network CNBC’s debate drew howls of protest from the candidates, the Republican National Committee pulled the debate from NBC News and gave it to CNN.) The new format for presidential debates, instituted in 2012, calls for the moderator to be less intrusive and facilitate back and forth between the candidates. But observers note that this actually makes the moderators’ job harder. “The moderator is now in a position to ask follow-ups and more importantly generate a give-and-take between the candidates, which is more work for the moderator,” notes Lehrer.
3. Will Clinton fact-check Trump’s birther lies?
It’s unclear whether Holt plans to bring up Trump’s documented role in fanning the false birther conspiracy surrounding President Obama’s birth certificate. Holt on Sept. 19 revealed three very broad topics for the debate: America’s Direction, Achieving Prosperity and Securing America. But Trump has brought the issue to the fore once again; less than two weeks ago he brazenly blamed Clinton for igniting the birther issue during the bitter 2008 Democratic primary race between Clinton and Obama. Many expect Clinton to bring it up, and Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, signaled as much when he told CNN New Day anchor Alisyn Camerota on Sept. 21 that Trump “doesn’t often tell the truth.” So Clinton is “going to have to spend some time probably correcting the record and making sure voters understand the facts.”
4. How will the gender dynamic play out?
Trump has alienated wide swaths of women voters with his history of misogynistic language. So he’ll have to carefully calibrate his attacks on Clinton or risk turning her into a sympathetic figure and potentially solidifying doubts many women already have about him. His criticism of Carly Fiorina offers an object lesson in what not to do. Trump gave an interview last year to Rolling Stone in which he said: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” He tried to backtrack at a primary debate last year. But Fiorina was able to score points when she stoically declared: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” Clinton has a 24-point lead among likely female voters (58 percent to 34 percent), according to a McClatchy-Marist poll released Sept. 23.
5. What’s at stake for the media?
There has been much working the refs in the run-up to debate. Trump has been accusing the moderators of being in the tank for Clinton, predicting that Anderson Cooper will be “very biased” and accusing Holt of being a Democrat who is part of a “phony” and “very unfair system.” (New York voter registration records show that Holt has been a registered Republican since 2003.) Obama has criticized the media for grading Trump “on a curve,” echoing other Clinton surrogates. But that narrative also is one that some in the media have conceded. “For a Trump statement to make news right now it would have to be so outrageous and so un-informed because there have been so many statements like that from the past,” notes Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College. “It’s impossible to deny that Trump is benefiting from the low expectations he faces.” And in a bitterly partisan era, the media has apparently hit a nadir in the estimation of consumers. According to a Sept. 14 Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans say they “trust the media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” the lowest level since Gallup began polling in 1972. How TV news anchors handle the debates will, for many, serve as a referendum on the state of the industry.
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