More than 100 million Americans -- and perhaps as many America-watchers around the world -- are expected to have their eyes glued to the first 2016 presidential debate tonight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Some, anticipating an old-fashioned street brawl, are referring to it on Twitter as "Smackdown at the Mack" -- after its venue at Hofstra University's David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex.
The moderator will be NBC's Lester Holt. Both campaign teams have speculated about how Holt will go about it, especially whether he should be fact-checking the candidates' answers. The co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Republican Frank Fahrenkopf, told National Public Radio (NPR) he doesn't think so.
Fahrenkopf says if "Candidate A" says something that's wrong or inconsistent with what they've done or said in the past, "it's not the moderators job to say, 'hey, Candidate A, that's not what you said last week.' That's for Candidate B to do."
Bob Schieffer agrees. The former CBS News anchor moderated three presidential debates. At a panel discussion at the University of Notre Dame recently, he said in his view, "the role of the moderator is to be the referee, it's not to be a judge." Schieffer says the moderator's role is to conduct a discussion that gives viewers "a fuller understanding of what these people think on various subjects."
This first 90-minute debate will be divided into three parts: America's Direction, Achieving Prosperity, and Securing America. But there should be time for Holt to veer off a little and get creative.
The candidates will not be "free-roaming" on the stage, they will stand at podiums. Here are the particulars:
- Who. Just Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be on stage but they will debate in front of a live audience. In spite of the third-party lobbying, neither Libertarian Gary Johnson nor Green Party candidate Jill Stein met the threshold set by the Commission on Presidential Debates by winning 15 percent of the national electorate based on polls.
- When. 9 p.m. ET. In fact, this will be the start time for all the debates.
- Where. Every major network will carry the debate live. Even the cable networks will have it live. You'll find it livestreamed on websites, social media platforms and even broadcast on live radio. Facebook and Twitter will both livestream the debate. And USA Today predicts, "No doubt, someone will be covering the debate with Snapchat's new Spectacles, for those who don't have the attention span for Twitter." Where you won't find the debate? ESPN, which is airing Monday Night Football as always, New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons.
Each candidate, of course, has his and her advantages/disadvantages.
As NPR discussed Sunday morning, in a year when voters are clearly ready for change and disgusted with the status quo, Trump has the advantage of being the outsider. Therefore, expectations for him are low. But he has big deficits with voters who think he doesn't have the character and temperament to be president.
"If Trump can stand on a debate stage for two hours and not lose his temper and come across as a reasonable person, he'll have a good night," said Alex Conant, who was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's spokesman during the GOP primaries. "And that's a lot easier than Clinton's task -- which is to convince people she's not a liar."
It's true, expectations are a lot higher for Clinton. Debate coaches say one of the biggest mistakes a presidential candidate can make is misunderstanding what a presidential debate is and is not. It's not a forum to score policy points (a Clinton strength). It's a contest of character and demeanor. Everyone knows that Clinton is knowledgeable and competent. Now she needs to use the debate to show she's also authentic and relatable.
"When I read about those giant debate books they're preparing for her, I cringe and worry. The smaller her debate book, the better off she'll be," Sam Popkin told NPR. Popkin has prepped four Democratic candidates for debates and played Ronald Reagan in Jimmy Carter's debate prep sessions.
Watch the candidates' body language. The issues may be what voters want to hear, but past debates have been won resoundingly or declared utter disasters based on the little things -- a quick temper, an annoying nervous reaction, a single question either badly or masterfully answered.
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