5 mistakes Clinton and Trump must avoid at second debate
Presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump enter their second debate on Sunday night in a very different place than they were two weeks ago.
A strong performance in the first debate appears to have given Clinton a boost in key battleground states, and Trump has spent much of the time since then mired in controversies entirely of his own making.
The debate at Washington University in St. Louis Sunday is a town hall with undecided voters, a format that does not play to either candidate’s strengths, according to Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.
However, Trump’s show business background may be a bigger advantage than it turned out to be in the first debate.
“When I think of town hall debates, it’s like a pageant or theater…it’s like producing a television show and Trump has experience doing that,” said Kall, who rewatched town hall debates from previous elections in preparation for this one.
Both candidates have faced damaging revelations in the last few days that open them up to new attacks and unexplored questions. This makes the debate even more unpredictable than most events in this consistently surprising campaign.
Although their goals might be different, Clinton and Trump must contend with the same potential pitfalls due to the town hall format and the current state of the race.
1. Diving into the gutter
The early portion of the debate will require both candidates to navigate some particularly treacherous waters.
CNN reported Sunday that moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz are planning for their first questions to address comments made by Trump in 2005 in a video that surfaced on Friday in which he brags about sexually assaulting women and says they let him because he is famous.
“Trump was bragging about being a sexual predator, so I don’t see how it doesn’t come up, and I don’t see how he can do any kind of political repair, because sexual assault is criminal and is condoned only by deviants,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga.
Trump has tried to put the issue behind him with two unconvincing apologies. He is expected to offer another apology at the debate.
“Trump has to convince America that his intemperate personal indiscretions won't impact his ability to implement his agenda,” said Republican strategist Brian Fraley.
“He can’t apologize enough and he needs to do it in a way that people will think is sincere…I don’t know if he’s that good a performer to pull that off,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor of advertising at Boston University.
According to Kall, Trump must do much better than he has so far and not make excuses for his past behavior.
“It’ll be interesting if he kind of takes the high road to see what Clinton’s reaction is,” he said.
Trump’s social media behavior over the last 48 hours does not inspire confidence that he will.
On Sunday morning, he tweeted out Breitbart News interviews with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and harassment. Clinton ultimately settled a lawsuit by one, Paula Jones, without admitting fault, and the claims by the other two, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, have never been proven.
Trump claims that Hillary Clinton attacked and tried to silence her husband’s accusers. However, the examples he often cites involved Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, women who had consensual affairs with Bill Clinton.
Berkovitz said Trump could make a case against Hillary Clinton going back to her handling of Bill’s behavior the 1980s in Arkansas, but it is a tricky attack to sell.
“That could be perilous because Trump is not good at subtlety,” he added.
Trump could also have to confront the fact that he said harsher things about some of these women in the 1990s than Hillary Clinton did. The Washington Post has compiled a video of his criticism of Clinton’s accusers at the time.
If Trump does raise the issue, coming up with an answer could prove difficult for Clinton.
“I don’t think that she is going to want to get into the weeds and relitigate that,” Kall said.
“For the good of America, Hillary Clinton should just speak up on behalf of all the normal and morally decent people who now see Donald Trump for what he is,” Varoga said.
“Hillary Clinton's challenge will be not to get sidetracked into the Trump circus,” Fraley said.
2. Bad body language
Some of the most memorable moments of recent presidential debates have come not from what candidates said in the town hall debate but from what they did while their opponent was talking.
“Even if you’re not answering a question, the split-shot is still on you,” Kall said.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush was seen checking his watch repeatedly while the other candidates were talking.
While preparing for the town hall debate in 2000, George W. Bush’s aides expected Al Gore would attempt to invade his personal space at some point. When it finally did happen, Bush’s reaction helped him win the post-debate spin.
“You have these seats, but you don’t really want to sit in them because you want to seem like you’re engaging with the audience,” Kall said.
Clinton has likely practiced to overcome that challenge, but she risks looking overly polished and inauthentic if she seems too prepared. Based on the reporting on his debate prep, Trump may not have practiced enough.
3. Attacking the audience
Neither candidate often takes questions from voters who disagree with them. Both could struggle with being polite and respectful to members of the debate audience who sometimes ask very tough questions.
The Trump campaign held a town hall event in New Hampshire on Thursday night. Although Trump insisted on stage that it was not a debate prep exercise, his aides told reporters it was.
As a practice round, Kall said it was “a joke.” The moderator of the event was a pro-Trump conservative and the audience was filled with Trump supporters. Even in that environment, though, Trump struggled to stay on topic and complete his answers within a time limit.
“All the things that you could actually prepare for that would help, he didn’t do, and he left after 30 minutes,” Kall said.
Trump has a tendency to get combative with reporters who challenge him. If he does the same to a regular undecided voter, it will not go over well.
“It’s harder to go after a citizen who throws a high fast inside pitch at you,” Berkovitz said.
In a small space with only a few dozen voters, there is a lot of room for error at a time when Trump cannot afford one.
“This is not a venue for him to shine, and he absolutely has to shine,” Berkovitz said.
4. Repeating their surrogates’ mistakes
Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine and top Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani appeared on Sunday morning talk shows to defend their candidates in the wake of the developments of the last few days.
It did not go great.
Giuliani insisted Trump’s sexual comments were typical of the way men talk, which male hosts disputed. He also awkwardly tried to shift attention to Clinton’s handling of accusations of assault and infidelity against her husband in the 1990s.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Giuliani struggled to offer factual evidence to support the claim that Hillary Clinton enabled Bill Clinton’s behavior and tried to discredit his alleged victims.
The Clinton campaign has not done much better in deflecting the latest troubling revelations about her.
Pressed on CNN about excerpts from Clinton’s paid private speeches contained emails released Friday by Wikileaks that appear to come from campaign chairman John Podesta’s account, Kaine attempted to cast doubt on their authenticity.
If accurate, the speeches include Clinton discussing a dream of “open markets and open borders” and suggesting she holds different positions privately than she does in public.
“I have no way of knowing the accuracy of documents dumped by this hacking organization,” Kaine said of whether they reflect his running mate’s positions.
“You could ask her,” host Jake Tapper responded.
Clinton and Trump will almost certainly get similar questions. They will need better answers.
5. Inviting a fact-check
Moderators have faced an unusual degree of pressure this year to actively fact-check the candidates on stage.
NBC News anchor Lester Holt challenged them a few times during the first debate. Cooper and Raddatz were tough on candidates in the primary debates, so they probably will not hesitate to confront Clinton or Trump if they say something blatantly false.
With a majority of voters neither liking nor trusting them, Clinton and Trump will need to be cautious to avoid easily-corrected misstatements.
Trump in particular has a number of common talking points are known to be false. He got tripped up at the first debate on his insistence that he opposed the Iraq war before it began, which Holt noted there is no public evidence of.
Given the comments about trade in her leaked speeches, Clinton may have to again defend her current opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She once called it the “gold standard” for trade deals, but she renounced during her primary fight with Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.
Even for an experienced politician like Clinton and a master showman like Trump, Sunday’s debate could take turns no one is expecting. And after all the times political insiders have prematurely predicted Trump’s demise, Berkovitz said it would be unwise to count him out now.
“Trump has pulled more rabbits out of his hat than a magician… Has he run out of hats and has he run out of rabbits?”