How Trump Lowered Expectations for the First Debate

Through a combination of working the refs, leaks that made him seem bumbling, and the numbing effects of months of campaigning, the Republican has smoothed his own path.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

It’s well-established that Donald Trump’s campaign doesn’t do most of the things a traditional political team does. There’s scarcely any policy, weak fundraising, and no ground game. But in one classic area of political positioning, the Trump team has proven it is historically great at one classic tactic: expectations setting.

With a few hours to go before the first presidential debate, it’s hard to see what the Republican nominee could do to avoid the meeting being judged at least a tie. Through a combination of months of campaigning, leaks about his debate prep, and aggressive working of the referees, Trump has set expectations so low that it’s hard to imagine how he finishes the debate without getting positive reviews from mainstream commentators.

At The Washington Post, James Hohmann rounds up a few glaring examples: A Politico reporter saying, “If he does passably, we’ll all say he won”; The New York Times’ Yamiche Alcindor saying, “A lot of people are going to look at Donald Trump and think, ‘Hey, if he can even get out a good sentence and show off his experience, then he's doing well’”; NPR saddling Clinton with “the burden of high expectations.” Andrew Kaczynski spotted this moment on MSNBC:

The point here is not that any of these particular people or sources are sinning; it’s about the general picture.

And it’s a picture that the Trump campaign has carefully painted over the course of the last few weeks and months.

Beginning in August, Trump effectively threatened to skip the debates. He argued that it was improper that one of them was scheduled against an NFL game and claimed falsely that the NFL had asked him to get it changed. He also said he wanted to see who the moderators were and what the rules were. Industry insiders speculated that the final slate of moderators was chosen in part to placate Trump.

If so, it worked, sort of. Trump agreed to debate but kept up his attack. For example, he derided NBC’s Lester Holt, the moderator of Monday’s debate, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly. “Look, it's a phony system,” he said. “Lester is a Democrat. I mean, they are all Democrats. Okay? It's a very unfair system.”

Trump was wrong: Holt is a registered Republican. Asked about this on Monday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway offered the novel defense that her boss wasn’t lying; he was simply shooting off at the mouth when he had no idea what he was talking about. “I don’t know that he knew what Lester Holt’s voter registration was,” she said. “He didn’t lie. A lie would mean that he knew the man’s party registration.”

After Matt Lauer failed, during a forum earlier this month, to point out that Trump was lying about opposing the Iraq War, progressives began pushing for debate moderators to fact-check in real time. Trump aides rallied against that idea, and on Sunday, Janet Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, sided with them. “I don't think it's a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica,” she said on CNN’s Reliable Sources.

All of this has the effect of putting both the commission and Holt on the defensive. Once Trump had threatened to quit and preemptively convicted the moderator of bias, Holt is pressured to bend over backward to appear fair—which means less real-time accountability for Trump, and an effort to be even-handed, regardless of the material.

He’s not just working the refs, though—he’s also, to continue the metaphor, working the sportswriters. Last week, the Times ran likely the most detailed story on debate preparation to see publication. Relying on advisers, friends, and surrogates, the reporters heard this about Trump:

  • “He has paid only cursory attention to briefing materials.”
  • “He prefers spitballing ideas with his team rather than honing them into crisp, two-minute answers.”
  • “His advisers see it as a waste of time to try to fill his head with facts and figures.”
  • “Mr. Trump can get bored with both debate preparations and debates themselves.”
  • “His team has been emphasizing the best ways to win: Do not pick stupid fights with her or with the moderator; explain yourself rather than get defensive...”
  • “Some Trump advisers are concerned that he underestimates the difficulty of standing still, talking pointedly and listening sharply for 90 minutes.”
  • “[Vulnerabilities include his] tendency to lie on some issues (like his challenge to President Obama’s citizenship) or use incorrect information or advance conspiracy theories—all of which opens him to counterattack from Mrs. Clinton or rebukes from the moderator.”

This may or may not be an accurate depiction. Separately, aides told Politico that Trump’s team has constructed an elaborate psychological profile of Clinton that he’s using to prepare. It’s hard to tell what is a psych-out and what’s real, but the effect of the balance of these leaks is to present Trump as so bumbling that simply standing up straight is an achievement.

Meanwhile, Kellyanne Conway is working the same jujitsu on reporters that Trump did on Holt, warning that reporters are biased against her nominee. It’s a no-lose proposition: Either reporters self-police, or else Trump’s supporters will simply write off anything they say as biased, regardless of the content.

But viewing this as the work of just a few weeks overlooks how important Trump’s entire campaign has been to creating this situation. Even if the Trump campaign hadn’t attacked Holt, made their candidate seem indifferent, and policed reporters, Trump the candidate has set the stage through his statements over the past 16 months.

Political reporting is heavily centered around two conventions. One, much remarked-upon and derided as “false equivalence” is the practice of comparing two things as like and like, even when they are not. A pair of Politico stories over the weekend, fact-checks of each candidate, offer an opportunity to see how to handle this right and wrong. As Donald Monynihan pointed out, reporters chided Clinton for a statement about how Trump’s tax plan would affect him because, they said, she was relying on Trump’s own, likely false, estimate of his net worth. On the other hand, Politico also concluded, “Trump’s mishandling of facts and propensity for exaggeration so greatly exceed Clinton’s as to make the comparison almost ludicrous.”

A second, perhaps underrated convention is comparing a candidate to him- or herself. This is where Trump has truly excelled. Because he has said so man outlandish things—and because, as Salena Zito memorably put it recently, the press takes Trump literally but not seriously—reporters are ill-equipped to assess Trump against any sort of objective standard. It is certainly true that Trump is sui generis, and while that does not preclude detached analysis, it makes it very challenging.

An example of this dynamic was also on display over the weekend. After the Clinton campaign announced it was inviting billionaire Mark Cuban, a veteran Trump troll, to the debate, Trump announced that he had invited Gennifer Flowers, who had an affair with Bill Clinton decades ago. Flowers even confirmed that she was attending. It was then left to Conway and Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, to break the news that Flowers would not actually be there.

By the standards of almost any campaign, either of these moves would be bonkers: A presidential candidate inviting the former mistress of his rival’s husband to a debate, or the fact that he did so and then thought better of it and was forced to do a 180. By Trump standards, however, the whole episode elicited mostly weary shrugs: Seems about right.

The silver lining for the Clinton campaign in this is that the scrutiny on lowered expectations has produced a pervasive sense of panic among many Democrats—in turn lowering her own expectations, and perhaps helping to motivate them to turn out in her support.

What does this mean for a voter who wants to understand what goes on in the debate? There will be some strong analysis of the debate that doesn’t fall into these traps, but the important thing is to watch out for either candidate being graded on a curve, to spot it when it happens, and to account for it.