Trump-Clinton debates certain to be a show

But will they make a difference?
Posted at 9:08 AM, Sep 23, 2016

There is no reason why previews of the upcoming presidential debates should be any more predictive or illuminating than all the previews of the 2016 campaign written last year. This is the campaign that devoured political precedent.

Who knows what unpredictable escapades might arise from the smoke and mirrors of the Trump-Clinton debates? Still, some chart notes may be useful to voters navigating the coming storms:

  • According to national polls, state polls and prediction models, Hillary Clinton now has a slight lead in a close race.
  • Historically, presidential debates do not alter the polls very much.
  • The debates, the pre- and post-spin, will monopolize the news media’s attention span over the next weeks.

Let’s go one at a time.

Four days before the first debate, the RealClearPolitics average of national polls gives Clinton a 1.1 percentage point lead over Trump in a four-person race including the candidates from the Libertarian and Green parties. That is down from a 7.4 margin in early August.

In the HuffPost Pollster average, Clinton’s lead is 2.3 points. 

Various groups use poll results and other data to handicap the probabilities. The “poll-plus forecast model” at FiveThirtyEight, a news site, gives Clinton a 57.8 per cent chance of winning and Trump a 42.2 per cent chance. That is the narrowest gap since the end of the primaries; Trump has never been the favorite.

The two models used by Princeton scientist Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium puts Clinton’s chances at 70 percent and 80 percent.  “The Upshot” model at The New York Times also gives Clinton the edge at 73 percent to Trump’s 27 percent. Finally, the PredictWise formula gives the Democrat a 72 percent chance of victory.

Forecasts of the electoral vote bases in individual state polls tell the same story of a close race. One respected site,, put its electoral vote forecast four days ahead of the debate at 289 for Clinton, 245 for Trump and four tied.

For all the wacky volatility of this campaign, the bottom line of the polling has been inharmoniously steady. As The Wall Street Journal noted in a report on it’s most recent national poll, “The result is a race that remains remarkably stable after a campaign that has seemed like a roller-coaster ride, yanking voters’ attention from one imbroglio to the next.” Clinton has never trailed in the average of polls; Trump has never cracked 40 percent in four-way matchups.

This points inexorably to the dominant pre-debate meme, “The 2016 debates will be the most decisive ever.” History tells a different story. Of course, history has never met Donald Trump.

In the television era, debates simply have not had the tangible impact we think they do. Certain moments have become iconic symbols of the essence of a race, but that doesn’t mean they actually changed the course of the election.

When political scientists look at polling before the debate period and then after in elections since 1960, there isn’t much change. The exception was 1976, but incumbent Gerald Ford was in a free-fall after Labor Day, and it was unclear precisely how much the debates mattered.

“The data show that while individual debates can shift the polls, the debate season (which includes all three presidential debates, the vice presidential debate and the media coverage surrounding them) typically doesn’t change the state of the race very much,” writes David Byler, an election analyst at RealClearPolitics.

What that means is that there is a near certainty that the debates will be over-hyped. 

The debates are likely to be memorable, outrageous or surreal, but they aren’t likely to change the course of the election. It won’t feel like that though, for all the sound and fury.

But again, Trump is the ultimate exception. While he consistently survives gaffes, outrages and offences that would have been fatal to normal candidates, he is not totally immune to self-inflicted wounds. The prime example is the fight he picked with the Khans, the Gold Star family who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton’s lead grew to a jumbo 8 percentage points in that period.

It’s certainly possible that Trump could perpetrate a blunder of that magnitude in the debates, one that would put the margin back to the 8-point range. In hindsight, though, that will look like the polls returned to their pre-debate level.

The real game-changer, of course, would be for Clinton to lose her now slender lead. Perhaps the debates will then turn out to be the clear turning point in her demise, but, again, history suggests otherwise.

There is evidence to support the media’s collective hope that these will be the most important modern debates.  The third party share of the vote is very high right now, yet another indication that there are an unusually high number of undecided or disenchanted voters. That’s adds to the volatility.

Certainly there has never been a candidate as reckless as Trump. He broke all the rules in his primary debates. He is the only major party nominee never to have served in either elective office, the military or a high government position; he has never had cause to muzzle himself for a greater good.

And never has the difference in expectations between two candidates been so extreme, at least articulated by the pre-debate coverage. 

Clinton is expected to be specific and masterful on the substance side and stylistically relaxed and warm in coping with whatever Trump throws at her. Trump is expected to be vague but certain on substance and outrageous in style. In the “expectation game,” Trump wins if he simply doesn’t commit a rhetorical atrocity.

In the end, the debates are likely to blend into the obnoxious, relentless continuum of the politics of the past decade or so, a period of extreme partisanship nourished by new media and new manners.

“Political argument has been having a terrible century,” historian Jill Lepore wrote recently in The New Yorker. She’s right.