What It Will Take to Win the Debate

Advice from campaign veterans as the two candidates prepare for their first debate

Rick Wilking / Reuters

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.—Candidate, heal thyself.

That was the most important goal an array of strategists in both parties identified for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump ahead of their high-stakes first debate here Monday night.

With both contenders laboring under unprecedented unfavorable ratings, several top operatives from both parties said it was more important for them to defuse the doubts that voters hold about their own candidacies than to deepen the doubts about their rivals.

“She needs to show that she has a vision as president to bring change to make this a better country,” said the long-time Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. “She needs not to be seen as part of the back and forth with Trump. I think she has to escape that and let people know where she wants to take the country, particularly on the economy.”

Likewise, John Brabender, the chief strategist for Rick Santorum’s two Republican presidential bids, said the key for Trump was convincing more voters he can do the job he’s seeking. “I think this debate is all about Donald Trump,” Brabender wrote in an email. “People have had a chance to see Hillary Clinton on stage for 24 years. Their opinions are already baked into the cake so to speak.  The challenge for Trump is to start winning more of the voters who already have an unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton.  To this point, too many of them have not seen Trump as a viable alternative.  That has certainly changed in the last four weeks as we have viewed a more controlled, disciplined and focused Trump and campaign message.  But there is still work to do.”

Over the past few days, I’ve asked nearly a dozen strategists, pollsters, and communications directors for previous presidential candidates to identify the most important priorities for Clinton and Trump at the debate. Their responses tracked to a surprising extent.

All thought it was important to frame a case against the opponent. But none of those I spoke (or emailed) with thought that should be the principal priority for either side. Instead, most thought each candidate must use the potentially record audience for the debate (some analysts expect up to 100 million viewers) to improve their own battered image with the electorate.

Several Democrats said the top priority for Clinton should be trying to convince voters that she is running not to satisfy her own ambition, but to make their lives better—and that she has concrete plans to do so.

“Most important, by far: she [must show she] is in it for them,” said one long-term Democratic strategist working on a pro-Clinton effort, who asked not to be identified. “Too many voters think she's in it for herself; for power or history or ego or money.  She needs to connect her 1,001 policies to a motive they admire.  Having known her for years, I know she is in this business for all the right reasons.  But she needs to connect her policies and her candidacy to the needs of the middle class.  This is far more important than handling Trump's outbursts.”

David Axelrod, the chief strategist for both of President Obama’s campaigns, offered a similar perspective. The top priority for Clinton, he wrote in an email, is to be “authentic and connected.”

Few on either side thought the debate would turn on a detailed critique of policies—an argument that has been remarkably peripheral to the race so far. But Greenberg maintains that it’s essential for Clinton to make a traditional Democratic case that has been largely eclipsed to date: that her plans would benefit middle-class families while Trump’s agenda would mostly help the rich.

“They haven’t heard her on the economy,” Greenberg said. “The constant back-and-forth between Trump and Hillary has crowded that out—just like the primary candidates were crowded out on any kind of economic discussion. It has taken [the campaign] to questions of attitude, openness to a new America, and law and order, terror—a whole range of issues that crowd out the economy. When we do focus groups and ask people why they are for her, they have reasons for it, but not amongst them is the economy.”

Democrats converged on another priority for Clinton: reinforcing the qualifications gap that may be her most important asset in polls. Even surveys that show the race very close overall almost always give Clinton a large lead on experience, temperament, and qualifications: In the ABC/Washington Post poll released Sunday, for instance, 59 percent said she was qualified to serve as president while 57 percent said Trump was not. (At least that many have said Trump is not qualified every time the poll has asked the question since 2015.) In last week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, respondents picked her by 60 percent to 23 percent when asked which candidate has the knowledge and experience to be president, and by 56 percent to 23 percent when asked which has the temperament to succeed in the job.

“You have to make Trump look unfit for office and you be the composed person.” said Ben Tulchin, the pollster for Bernie Sanders primary campaign. Added the Democratic strategist involved in the pro-Clinton effort: “Elevate the job.  If this is about performance art and entertainment, Trump wins.  If it is about whose finger should be on the nuclear button, no contest.”

It was on the comparison of qualifications that several Democrats thought it most important for Clinton to draw contrasts, partly by trying to provoke Trump into heated responses. One long-term Democratic communications strategist who asked not to be identified put it this way: “She has to expose him as a complete and utter fraud.  He's going to be scripted—but that discipline will only last so long if Hillary or Lester Holt get under his skin.  Pressing him on any piece of substance or his business record will do that. If Trump wants to move numbers, he has to prove he has the depth, substance, and temperament to be commander in chief.   It's rare for a candidate to go into a debate having to prove what should be thresholds to a serious candidacy.”

Another Democratic strategist familiar with polling numbers in swing states similarly said Clinton must prevent Trump from using the huge audience, much of which may have been following the race only tangentially, to refashion his image. The best way to do that, this Democrat said, was to consistently remind voters about “the outrageous things he has said in the past, so he cannot reinvent himself as a normal person in the debate.”

Viewing the challenge from the opposite perspective, the Republicans I communicated with largely agreed on the task facing their nominee. Universally, they said the most important measure of success for Trump at the debate would be diminishing voter doubts about his qualifications, temperament, and values.

“For Trump to win, he has to jump over two hurdles that have dogged him thus far,” the long-time GOP pollster Glen Bolger wrote in an email. “First, he has be Presidential instead of scaring people.  That is not important to his current voters, but he needs to do that to expand his current pool.  Second, he has to communicate that he has some command of issues, instead of making it up as it goes along.”

Bolger added:  “Hillary helps him if she gets too far down the road of issue wonkiness, tiring voters with her earnestness and know it all approach.  The other area that hurts her, and I’m sure her advisers are begging her not to do this, is if she gets peeved or snappish by questions about her emails, the [Clinton] foundation, Benghazi, or any of the long lists of other things she has lied about over the years.”

Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster who specializes in younger voters, agreed that Trump’s critical test is convincing more Americans to plausibly envision him as president. “Trump has not passed the "commander-in-chief" test with most voters,” she wrote in an email. “Poll after poll shows large majorities of voters having deep reservations about his temperament and fitness for office. Will he flip many voters from ‘unfavorable’ to ‘favorable’? Probably not. But he needs enough of the ‘unfavorable’ folks to at least be able to close their eyes and envision Trump in the Oval Office. This doesn't mean he needs to be a policy expert (though that would be lovely), it just means he needs to show, if he can, that even though he is often off-the-cuff and hot-headed, he also has the ability to be thoughtful and measured.”

Brabender similarly believes Trump’s tone and demeanor may matter than his specific words. “I think the debate to some extent needs to be more about tone and tenor and less about getting correct answers,” Brabender wrote. “Trump certainly needs to demonstrate a grasp of the issues…he does not have to be the smartest kid in the class. [And] he has to continue defining Hillary Clinton, but in a way that does not come across as harsh or mean spirited … Above all, he needs at some point in the debate to demonstrate empathy. He needs to show he doesn’t just have the answers, he also understands the concerns.”

The consistent note from these strategists in each party is that both candidates may benefit if they can suppress their natural instinct to maul their opponent and instead elevate other goals: in Clinton’s case proving that she cares about ordinary people, in Trump’s demonstrating that he’s fit for the Oval Office. Whether either candidate can follow that advice in the heat of Monday’s confrontation may provide an extreme test of the old wisdom that no plan of battle survives contact with the enemy.