"I Think It’ll Be A Clown Show" - Why Tomorrow's Debate Is So Important

Craig Bell, a 55-year-old software engineer from Columbus, Ohio, will be one of the 100 million estimated Americans set to tune in on Monday night at 9pm for the first debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.  As profiled by Bloomberg, what he sees will be as important as what he hears. “I don’t know how to say this nicely, but I just want to see which one can act more presidential and more trustworthy,’’ Bell said at a table outside North Market in downtown Columbus.

Bell, and millions of "undecideds" like him, is why tomorrow's debate has such huge significance:  according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 34% of registered voters think the three presidential debates would be extremely or quite important in helping them decide whom to support for president. About 11% of voters are considered “debate persuadables”—that is, they think the debates are important and are either third-party voters or only loosely committed to either major-party candidate.

Slightly more Republicans than Democrats said the debates would be important to them, 37% to 31%. But voter groups that seem poised to pay the most attention include several that Hillary Clinton is counting on to win. Some 49% of Hispanics, 42% of African-Americans and 39% of voters under age 35 say that the debates will be extremely or quite important to them.

The breakdown of the millions of Americans yet to decide who they will vote for is shown below (apologies to Gary Johnson fans: he will not make it tomorrow): 

According to Bloomberg, interviews conducted in key precincts of Ohio and Pennsylvania as well as other battleground states found voters who said they’ve ruled out either Clinton or Trump but aren’t yet comfortable with the alternative. Some are considering a third party contender, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson or not voting at all for president. While they care about the issues, most say they’ve heard where the candidates stand and aren’t expecting any new ground to be broken when they meet Monday night at Hofstra University in New York for the first of three scheduled debates.

Still, they may be persuaded, and that's what the campaigns are betting on. Indeed, as the WSJ adds, the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton acknowledged the huge stakes of Monday’s televised presidential debate. “In many ways, with this debate coming up, we’re just starting,” said Robby Mook, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, on ABC Sunday. Added Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, speaking on the same network: “This will be the first time Americans have seen Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the same stage, and they’re going to be able to make their choice based on what they see.”

The risk, of course, is that the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history succeed in turning away even more potential voters.

“I feel like they are both bad choices,” said Melissa Huber, a 39-year-old day-care provider in Oklahoma. “I’m hoping that through the debate one of them will come out as a preferred option.”

Ms. Huber is thinking of supporting Mr. Johnson, but added that like the abovementioned Craig Bell, Trump could win her over in the debate if he was to “show a little decorum. Show that he can be presidential.”

Arnitress Dowdy, 39, an African-American who hasn’t settled on a candidate and quoted by the WSJ, is inclined to support Mrs. Clinton and is hoping to hear her address issues of race and police violence in the wake of the unrest in Charlotte, N.C.

“I’m not sure who is really well equipped; I just need to hear more,” said Ms. Dowdy, a mother of two in New York. “I know she has advocated for children. I want to know what she will do so things will calm down.”

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The most likely outcome from tomorrow's debates, however, is that those who have decided on either Trump or Hillary will not change their minds, while the truly undecided will remain undecided. Worse, their confusion may be exacerbated: in that vein, Bloomberg reports that some 74 percent of likely Colorado voters deemed Trump “risky,” to 59 percent for Clinton, and 62 percent said Trump was “scary,” versus 57 percent for Clinton.

A bigger risk, this time for Hillary, is that in a rerun of the seminal 2000 debate between Dubya and Al Gore, she passes off as even more robotic than usual: while more than eight in ten Colorado Democrats described Clinton as “competent” and “responsible,” only about 40 percent said she was “exciting,” CBS News said. When the latter group were asked specifically why they didn’t find her so, the top answer was they had wanted Senator Bernie Sanders as the party nominee, followed closely by the response that Clinton is too close to politics as usual.

Trump did well within his own party in Colorado, being seen as “inspiring” by 72 percent of Republicans. And many Republicans who described him as risky are voting for him nonetheless, the poll showed. Some 91 percent of Republicans felt Trump would change Washington and 86 percent said he can fix the economy.

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For those who do hope to be persuaded, here are some clues during the debate for what kind of leader the candidates will be.

Reece Pavlovich of Columbus, 23, who works in sales for the Columbus Blue Jackets, said whether the candidates try to answer questions directly or dodge them will help him decide.

“It’s a small tell-tale sign, if you can’t answer this one simple question that was asked of you without diverting or trying to blame it on someone else,’’ he said. “I don’t think that you’re fit to make massive world decisions or political decisions that can impact millions or billions of people.’’

Judy Thacker of Palmetto, Florida, 58, a laid-off cook who considers herself an independent, doesn’t like either Clinton or Trump. She wants to see how they interact with each other as a cue for how they would handle themselves on the international stage. “If you watch them speak with each other, that’s how they would speak with a foreign leader if they were in a tight situation and they were trying to work something out and things were getting really hot and heavy like they will be at the debate,’’ Thacker said.

Stephanie Frederick-Weber, 38, who lives near Reno, Nevada, doesn’t think either candidate has articulated a broader vision for the U.S. beyond standard rhetoric and hopes the debate will be an opportunity to get more than prepared speeches and talking points. “The debates are kind of integral because they kind of catch them off guard a little bit,’’ she said.

To all of the above, and millions like them who honestly hope to be swayed, good luck.

The rest, however, will merely be watching tomorrow's debate just for the shock and entertainment value. As Bloomberg concludes, some undecided voters are so fed up with the race and their choices, they doubt the debate will matter or don’t plan to watch it.

“I think it’ll be a clown show, more than I’ll get a good bombshell out of it,’’ said Ryan Porter of Columbus, 29, a financial adviser. It will be up to Trump and Hillary to prove him wrong, and - in the process - win.