In an election year that has defied all conventional political thinking, the presidential debates are shaping up as a crucial element in capturing votes.
Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton have their first debate on Sept. 26, at Long Island's Hofstra University with NBC's Lester Holt moderating. it's the first of three scheduled presidential debates.
Traditional political convention dictates the presidential debates really don't matter, at least not much said Jeff Brauer a Keystone College political science professor in Northeast Pennsylvania.
"By the time the debates came around in a presidential cycle, the candidates are well-known to voters and typically there is only a small percentage of truly undecided voters left," he said.
However, in this electoral cycle, the debates will matter, possibly matter a great deal, Brauer said.
"First, look for record viewership with the celebrity nature of the candidates," Brauer said. "It will be difficult for almost anyone not to tune in just to see how these two candidates interact with each other one-on-one."
Second, a significant number of voters are planning to vote for an alternative candidate. The debates will be the best and last true chance to sway some of these protest voters into one of the two major camps.
Third, the race is close and getting closer as the debates approach said Brauer, "Most importantly, several key swing states are tightening, which means an especially good or bad performance could possibly move electoral votes," he said.
"There really is an opportunity in these debates to dramatically change the trajectory of this election," he said.
Charlie Gerow — a GOP media consultant who led Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina's debate prep team – agrees that this year's face-off between Trump and Clinton has changed that conventional wisdom and that the entire trajectory of the electoral vote of an entire state could move on a debate performance.
"I think you are going to have a huge audience," Said Gerow. "And for the small sliver who have not decided who they are going to vote for, this could be game changing, especially with so many battleground states poll numbers showing the race within the margin of error."
On Sunday, the CBS Battleground Tracker polls showed the status of the race across the combined battlegrounds is tied 42 percent to 42 percent. The survey was conducted with 4,02 interviews of registered voters in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin with the margin of error at plus or 1.9 percent.
So that small sliver Brauer referenced as being persuadable this time could possibly move an entire states composition during the three debates held between September 26th and the end of October.
Voters across the country — especially in these battleground states — have shown throughout this election cycle that partisan divide continues to be intense and they are still looking for change.
Political experts agree that both candidates need to change their message to the voter and perceptions of them during these three debates.
"The time for tearing down your opponent is over," explained Steve McMahon, a Democratic media consultant and managing partner at the Washington, D.C., -based Purple Strategies.
McMahon who worked in the senate office of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and on the presidential campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean says, "It's now time to begin laying out positive, aspirational vision for the future."
"Whichever candidate does that better will begin to move undecided voters in their direction," he said, adding the Clinton campaign understands this and is beginning to do it.
Trump for his part needs to address the temperament issue right out of the gate said Gerow. "He needs to remain calm and not go over the top," he said.
Especially given the terror incidents that happened over the weekend in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota, both candidates need to stress leadership, stability, temperament and a willingness to call out attacks in the United States Gerow said.
"Trump also needs to demonstrate a reasonable amount of knowledge of public policy and he has to prosecute the case without sounding or appearing angry," he said.
Hillary has a much more difficult job because she has to regain momentum and she has to go on the offense said Gerow.
"Her whole campaign has been a hunkered down Rose Garden event; she needs to get away from making it a resume class and talk about her knowledge of the issues and her superior grasp of foreign and public policy without saying it."
These debates are not scored on points, they are mini-press conferences and they are often decided on little moments; body language is important, so are how things are said and much hinges the comfort the candidate's project.
With two candidates who have the highest unfavorables of any presidential candidate in history, a major goal in the debates for both Trump and Clinton has to be to just come across as more likeable and trustworthy.
"It is the only way either will be able to attract any third and fourth party voters to their respective camps," said Brauer.
In reality both really need to do that just to secure and motivate their own bases, as many Democratic voters are still waiving on Clinton and many Republican voters are still quite unsure of Trump.
In addition, Trump particularly needs to continue to ramp up his populist rhetoric, which got him here in the first place said Brauer.
"But he needs to do it laden with specific policy details to prove he has substance and not just style, something he has not successfully done yet," he said.
"Clinton has to almost do the opposite; she is already known to be the policy wonk in this race. She needs to lay off of her tendency to hide behind policy details, which makes her seem cold and unapproachable," said Brauer.
Instead, she needs to concentrate on selling herself as a leader.
Clinton needs to talk about all her experiences and skills and why they are relevant to the presidency; this worked well at the Democratic National Convention and led to a significant post-convention bump for her.
Brauer ranked past presidential debate performances, and sometimes just moments, that seemed to have mattered the most which fall into one of two categories:
The first category is how the candidates reveal to voters a new way of looking at a their prowess and/or an opponent's weakness:
- The famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate revealed that the dynamic youthful appearance and demeanor of John F. Kennedy could be presidential, even more so than the experienced Vice President Richard Nixon, who was not looking well.
- Ronald Reagan was the master of this with his brilliant lines. First, in 1980 vs. Jimmy Carter. "There you go again" showed Reagan to be a relaxed and poised leader (while also deflecting criticism of his record on Medicare). "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" closing statement got voters to think about how their own lives had been negatively impacted by the Carter economy. In 1984 against Walter Mondale, his remark, "I will not exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience" humorously took off the table Reagan's own age, being the oldest candidate in history
In the second category candidates seem to confirm to voters a negative perception/narrative of a candidate:
- 1976. "No Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe" seemed to confirm Ford's lack of the necessary intelligence to be a successful president
- 1988. Dukakis's cold, policy response to the death penalty question centered around what if his wife was raped and murdered seemed to confirm his passionless and unemotional demeanor
- 1992. Bush's glance at his watch seemed to confirm his boredom and aloofness with the nation's challenges (while Clinton moved around the audience showing empathy and connectedness)
- 2000. Gore's audible sighs seemed to confirm his arrogance and pretentiousness that he should be on the same stage with the likes of George W. Bush.
Salena Zito covers national politics for Newsmax.
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