The last 19 months of the 2016 campaign have featured mind-blowing plot twists and developments, but Sunday night’s debate could be the most unpredictable, high-stakes 90 minutes in American political history.
Yes, the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was more unpredictable than any in history — at the time. And, of course, this is a presidential election that’s been given to some hyperbole.
But the town hall style format of the next debate adds three different dimensions of spontaneity for the candidates: live audience questions, an open stage, and high stakes for conveying an emotional connection.
“This town hall debate is structurally set up to be the most exciting and have the most surprising moments of the whole campaign,” said University of Missouri professor Mitchell McKinney, who has advised the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
In past presidential elections, the town hall debates have created some of the most iconic unscripted moments in political history.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush glanced at his watch. In 2000, Al Gore ventured into George W. Bush’s personal space. Four years later, Bush failed to acknowledge any mistakes in his presidency when pressed by a voter. In 2008, John McCain walked around so much on the stage that “Saturday Night Live” made a skit out of it. And, of course, just four years ago, CNN’s Candy Crowley interjected with a fact-check for Mitt Romney during his town hall debate with President Obama.
Here is a detailed look at the more unpredictable aspects of Sunday’s debate:
There will be two moderators: CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’ Martha Raddatz. Some have suggested this might prompt some rivalry between the two because only one moderator can come away shining.
But the dual-moderator situation also prompts several questions: Will one moderator interrupt the other? If so, would it be in an attempt to get the other two to stop interrupting each other?
Most of the questions will come from a selected group of undecided voters instead of a member of the media. That makes it more difficult for the candidates to criticize the questioner.
Typically presidential candidates are prepared for this format, thanks to the numerous town hall meetings they hold in Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton is certainly experienced in that format, though most questions in those campaign-sponsored events come from hand-picked local residents who are usually sympathetic to the candidate. But Trump has held only a few town hall style meetings, and in those cases, he would moderate the questions from a large audience.
“As a Republican, the one thing that concerns me the most about the entire debate process are the audience questions, and how Trump handles them,” said Rob Jesmer, a longtime Republican strategist. “If some audience member comes after him with a hard one, Trump cannot take the bait, and I am afraid he might.”
The fact that the conversation is in front of everyday citizens should make the tone more civil than the first debate.
“Trump has hinted that he may bring up Clinton’s personal life, and that will be really tough to pull off in that atmosphere,” said McKinney, the Missouri presidential debate expert. “If he goes there, who knows how the audience will react?”
The town hall style format of the debate adds three dimensions of spontaneity for the candidates: live audience questions, an open stage, and high stakes for conveying an emotional connection.
However, this is where the audience plays a major factor. What if an audience member asks Clinton about her husband’s past infidelity? What if a woman stands up and asks Trump if he thinks she is fat, and what does he think that says about her?
The lack of a podium means the candidates will be forced to be aware of their space in a new way. How close do they get to their opponent or to the moderators or to the person asking a question? Do they sit back on their stool when they aren’t talking, or remain aggressively standing? Will they hold their microphone in a weird way?
“Just getting rid of the podiums makes it more of a casual setting, and candidates will have a harder time hitting talking points,” said Gabriel Lenz, who researches candidate performance of at the University of California at Berkeley.
The human element
In some ways the town hall debate presents a huge opportunity for these candidates. Both are deeply disliked, and as Clinton found ahead of the 2008 New Hampshire primary, when she shed a tear in response to a voter’s question, a human moment can go a long way.
Will Clinton hug someone in the debate? Will Trump appear sympathetic and relatable?
A human moment could go viral on the internet faster than any other political moment has before. A failed attempt could do the same thing. Either way, such an unscripted moment could fundamentally alter the race.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.