It seems to be the general consensus--at least among Democrats--that when it comes time for the Presidential debates, Hillary Clinton will wipe the floor with Donald Trump. There's evidence that Trump himself is worried about this, already hemming and hawing about the debate schedule. If you'll recall, he actually sat out of one of the Republican debates because he didn't like the results of the previous one.
There is little doubt that when it comes to knowledge of government, public policy, and the issues at stake in this election, Hillary Clinton has a better grasp. But the Democratic nominee would be wise to study Trump's past debate behavior and rhetoric--the angry orange man may not know how to "win" a debate, but he certainly knows how to derail one. And for Trump, that could be as good as winning.
Here's how Trump "beats" Clinton in a debate:
1. Attack the questions and the moderators.
Not even Trump's biggest defenders believe he has a great handle on the issues (the most common defense is, "he'll have the best advisors.") One of his best strategies to buy time to formulate answers and distract from his lack of knowledge will be to go after a group that most of his supporters uniformly hate. No, not Muslims... the Media. He will most likely be called to task for previous things he's said on Twitter, in interviews, and rallies, and his winning strategy will be to accuse the moderators of bias (remember Megyn Kelly), the questions for being unfair, and the debate process itself as being rigged. By de-legitimizing the debate, he seeks to mitigate its impact. Instead of losing the debate, his supporters will be able to say he successfully withstood a character assassination attempt. Expect that any pointed question about his temperament, behavior, or prior statements will be parried with a defense that the media is out to get him and deliberately skewing the coverage.
2. Interrupt, mug for the camera, and talk over Hillary.
Donald Trump loves attention. He thrives on it. As we heard in their respective convention speeches, there's quite a contrast between Hillary and Donald's speaking styles. You'd think a calm, well reasoned argument typically wins out over an unhinged ramble. Usually, you'd be right. But to use the Republican debates as an example, Trump uses his demented charisma not to make a powerful argument, but to steal the stage. He's consistently robbed other candidates of speaking time. Look at what he did to "poor" Jeb Bush, an experienced politician who certainly speaks more coherently on the issues--Trump silenced him, again and again, in front of a national audience, and made him appear weak. Trump set the rhythm of the debate by never allowing his opponent to make a point uninterrupted. Trump will attempt to deny Hillary the time to make a reasoned argument and bully her off the stage, For him, it's better if viewers are distracted by him muttering, "Crooked Hillary," or if the network cuts away to catch him mugging for the camera, than if the audience is able to focus on Hillary's words. The more focus he can pull toward him--even if its negative--the more he makes Hillary disappear.
3. Mock Hillary with nicknames and attack lines.
Trump doesn't want a debate. He wants a circus. Debates favor the best arguments and the strongest speakers. A circus is pure entertainment. John Kasich made some inroads--too late--among Republicans because he mostly stayed out of the ugly fray and stayed on topic during the Republican debates. Meanwhile, Little Marco and Lyin' Ted fell by the wayside because they stopped looking Presidential and started looking like damaged little boys on the playground. Trump got them to play in the mud, and they soiled themselves. Trump's goal is to get Hillary agitated and get her to break decorum. As Michelle Obama said in her convention speech, "When they go low, we go high." If Hillary forgets this, and goes low, Trump will be able to feed a narrative of name-calling and childish bickering to the news media. That will dominate the headlines the next day, instead of his debate failures and lack of substance.
4. Protest, then Parrot
4. Protest, then Parrot
Otherwise known as the Mitt Romney debate strategy. Also a strategy well-known to Melania Trump's speechwriter. And it's the best way for Trump to seem Presidential and "take the high road." The "Protest, then Parrot" strategy boils down to this. First, accuse your opponent of being out of touch, of just not getting it: America needs a change from politics as usual. Then--nearly word for word--lay out the same exact strategy your opponent supports. For added effect, one up it. For example, Hillary lays out a $275 billion dollar plan to put people to work rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure? Accuse her of selling out the working class, redistributing wealth, and raising our taxes... and then propose spending "at least double" to put people to work rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure. Time and again, if Hillary lays out a plan, Trump will say it will raise our taxes and sell out America, and then will recite the same plan, except he'll do it by cutting taxes and saving America. Trump won't need to bring any of his own ideas--other than The Wall--he can just steal from Hillary. Most political commentators and the audience watching at home thought Mitt Romney won the first debate in 2012, even though everything he said on stage was wildly out of character and ran counter to the policies he'd advocated for his entire campaign. It's winning by blurring the lines--sound just like your opponent, and some people won't be able to tell the difference. Even better, your opponent is caught off guard and has nothing to say.
5. Go left.
The Bernie or Bust strategy. Realistically--and the polls show this--a Bernie Sanders supporter isn't going to vote for Trump. The Donald knows this... or at least the people in his campaign do. But Trump's appeals to the Bernie set aren't designed to win votes... they're designed to lower turnout for Hillary. A left-leaning Bernie supporter who doesn't vote for Hillary is a win in Trump's book, especially in swing states, where the polls are close. If he can consistently attack Hillary's ties to Wall Street, her support for the war in Iraq, the DNC's questionable ethics, he can keep the discussion about Hillary's commitment to progressive values alive. Heck, he might even go out of his way to praise Jill Stein! If he can keep a few thousand left-leaning voters from pulling the lever for the only left-leaning candidate with a realistic shot at the Presidency, he tightens the race. And as we saw in Florida in the 2000 election, that could make a big difference.
Can Hillary withstand these strategies? Can she counter them? She's certainly heard it all and faced much worse throughout her long time in politics. If she can demonstrate her mastery of the issues and keep her emotions in check--unlike Rubio and Cruz--and command attention and respect the way Jeb Bush couldn't, she should succeed just like all the prognosticators expect. But if Trump gets under her skin and steals the microphone, the debates could be a wash, doing nothing to move the needle for her. That's a win in Trump's book, and it's something the Clinton camp should take very seriously.