First Presidential Debate: The Little Things That Can Mean a Lot

Trump Clinton Pre-Debate - Getty - H 2016
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The waiting is almost over as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump finally square off in the first of three presidential debates.

It’s (finally) debate night in America! Possibly more than ever before in history, this first of the presidential debates is expected to to be more watched, more engaged on social media and more talked-about than any other before. If this were sports, it’d be a veritable Super Bowl/World Cup/Final Four at Madison Square Garden. With people in suits.

If you’re a first-timer, a veteran politico or not even sure you’re going to be watching, this year’s candidates and the campaign season have proved this debate will bring something for everyone.

The candidates have been spending weeks in preparation for what will probably be their most significant moments before the American voters, even bigger than their respective convention speeches.

Clinton is supposedly preparing for all of the different sides of Trump’s personality, not knowing which will show up on debate night, taking off the majority of the week ahead of the debate. Trump hasn’t taken that route, opting for events, even one on Saturday night just days before the debate. There’s not even clear intel on how he’s preparing for Clinton.

But there are a few things the trained eye will be looking for on debate night to see how voters may respond to the candidates as they make their bid for the White House. Here are a few of them:

Look out for little things  

“Winning” a debate often has nothing to do with knowing the most information or playing by the rules, it’s all about perception. For the record: There is no official debate winner declared, who “wins” the debate isn’t even necessarily about having the most information, appearing capable or having the most solid answers, it’s all about perception and how it reads to viewers at home.

Experts will always tell you things happen in a debate that get completely overlooked by everyone in the room, but at home, on television, they read completely differently.

Gwen Ifill, host of PBS' News Hour and 2012 vice presidential debate moderator, says one of the most talked-about, but most easily missed, moments in the debate between then-Gov. Sarah Palin and then-Sen. Joe Biden came before the debate was even underway, and happened right in front of her, but she didn’t know it’d happened.

“Can I call ya ‘Joe’?” Palin said to Biden as they shook hands and hugged while entering the stage. It was only caught on their television-connected microphones. Viewers at home heard it, remembered it, felt endeared to her. It almost felt strategic, an intentional gesture. Later, in HBO’s film about the election, Game Change, it was said that the truth was she wanted to call him “Joe” because she’d consistently been mistakenly calling the would-be Vice President Joe “O’Biden” and thought “Joe” would be easier.

Al Gore famously lost his debate with George W. Bush because of a little thing: sighs of annoyance. There in the room, basically no one in the venue even noticed it, but the home viewers hated it and it stuck.

Little things make it home to the viewer.

Little things connect to the voters.

Little things can mean a debate “victory.”

So when determining who “won,” look out for the little things.

Look out for landmines 

If we’ve learned anything in the 2016 election season so far, it’s that the wild card (read: Donald Trump) has kept everyone on their toes. However, the one-on-one debate is a stage where Trump may have the handicap against Clinton.

Trump’s experience as a first-time candidate has proved successful, having beaten back the GOP multitudes to be the last person standing. But he’s never debated just one person; he’s always been on stage with a group of contenders and sometimes had the advantage of fading into the background for a while, letting others take jabs at one another. This time, that luxury isn’t available.

On the other (normally sized) hand, it’s estimated that Clinton has participated in approximately 40 debates over the course of nearly two decades, most of the recent ones being against, primarily, one person: Bernie Sanders. She’s got the experience of lots of debates, but never against an opponent as unpredictable or unorthodox as the man she’ll meet in New York on Monday night.

Each candidate has issues that could blow up in their faces if their answers aren’t carefully worded. Things like when (if) we’ll see Trump’s taxes, whether Clinton can be trusted with an email of sensitive information, how each is perceived as a worse liar than the other and ultimately how the two would handle foreign policy.

But there are also the landmines that have nothing to really do with being president. Look out for if/how Trump will answer regarding his recent denouncing of the years-long birther controversy. How he could try to invoke former President Bill Clinton’s infidelities with Monica Lewinsky or Gennifer Flowers — as he’s implied he would, although his surrogates have insisted he would not. He may say her health, or need to sleep (something he famously does very little of), make her unfit to be president. 

Clinton, on the other hand, is expected to make off-topic jabs, but there are plenty of policy places to try to land punches. She may ask him which of his many positions he plans to take to the White House regarding the five different stances on abortion he took in the course of 24 hours; his infamous Mexican-financed wall on the southern border; he’s been in a few different frames of mind on minimum wage; and the list goes on. Trump will no doubt have to make clear what his plans are when they come up. Or, just be witty.

Look out for one-liners 

Without fail, the debate highlight reel is always jam-packed with the things that were said that got a visceral response from the audience. Probably this campaign season’s most remembered debate line was from the Democrats’ first debate. When questioned about feelings on Clinton’s emails, Sen. Bernie Sanders declared that Americans were “tired of hearing about your damned emails!” It was the moment that likely overshadowed everything else that happened that night.

One-liners can often make the entire night for a candidate. One of the more iconic moments all politicos remember would be when a 73-year-old Ronald Reagan, being criticized as too old for the office, famously had a (lengthy) line that got everyone laughing when addressing his ... maturity.

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience,” he said. His opponent, Walter Mondale, said that, while they laughed, he was dying inside, knowing that it was a hit with the audience. 

While Reagan’s was likely written well in advance,  winning lines are sometimes more spontaneous. President Obama had a bit of a throw-away comment in his debate with Hillary Clinton that did not go over well with television viewers. Hillary Clinton was asked about not being likable enough, compared to the popular then-Sen. Obama. “Well, that hurts my feelings,” Clinton replied with a smile, getting a laugh. She went on to say he indeed was very likable. “I don’t think I’m that bad…,” she concluded.

Obama, while writing on a notepad, sort of looks over to her and says, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” What felt like a lighthearted moment for some, felt like a pompous, if not a simply distasteful moment from Obama.

Overall, there’s a lot that can’t be predicted about what will happen in the debate, simply because it’s live television, with two people who at one point may have seemingly been friends, but have now turned adversaries. Mix in not knowing what gets asked, how the candidates will respond and how all of it will read at home, and you’ve got a recipe for good television if nothing else.

The ultimate wild card that’s increasingly important with all of these factors: social media. The campaigns will undoubtedly be tweeting out their one-liners, posting about fact-checking the little things, and ready with full-on assaults when a candidate steps into a dangerous topic the wrong way.

All of these little things, landmines and one-liners seem to have a real impact on the way people feel about the candidate they will ultimately vote for — or, as this election is likely to go, whom many will vote against.

Both will have surrogates out making the rounds saying they’ve won, but only one will cross the finish line a winner. 

Make sure to join us immediately following the presidential debate, on The Hollywood Reporter’s Facebook Live at 7.45 p.m PST. "Countdown to Election Night with Jarrett Hill" will be live in Los Angeles, at the Crest Theater with an audience of collegiate millennials and political experts for live feedback on the debate, the candidates, and what they made of it all.