“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.”