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The first 30 minutes of the first presidential debate is the most important time slot in the general election, say historians and politics professionals.
As Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University journalism professor and author of a book about past presidential debates, told me this week, the first half-hour “sets the dynamic of not just how that debate will go, but all of the others following it.”
When Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump take the stage for their first debate Monday night, each know they need a strong start. The polls show that Trump has momentum, but that Clinton still has the upper hand in the Electoral College. No one doubts that the stakes are high.
But often the first question in the first debate can serve as a historical marker for the driving issue of the campaign — and the time. Here are the first questions for the last nine presidential debates, paraphrased for brevity:
1980: What are the differences between the two of you on the uses of American military power?
1984: How would you balance the budget?
1988: What is it about these times that drives people to use drugs?
1992: What separates each of you from the other? (This was a three-person debate including Ross Perot.)
1996: What is the role of government?
2000: Does George W. Bush have the experience to be president? (Al Gore suggested in a recent interview that Bush did not.)
2004: Can John Kerry do a better job preventing another September 11th?
2008: Do the candidates support a financial rescue package currently being negotiated by Congress?
2012: How do you create more jobs?
So what should be the first question of the 2016 presidential debate? On the issues, there are several serious domestic and foreign issues competing for attention, but no single one is dominating all of discussion. The most recent national poll (from McClatchy and Marist College) showed the top issue facing the country was the economy (34 percent), followed by terrorism (12 percent), health care (12 percent), education (12 percent) and then immigration and foreign policy at 9 percent each.
Also keep in mind that this campaign has been less about issues than the candidates’ character. For example, early this month, it wasn’t Trump’s immigration proposal that drove coverage — it was that Trump could flip-flop on a central issue to this campaign.
For guidance, the Commission on Presidential Debates has released a list of three broad topics for the debate, in no particular order: America’s Direction, Achieving Prosperity, Securing America.
Here are some ways the first question could go:
Following the first African-American president and with racial tensions high, a discussion about race in America and the changing demographic changes generally.
Has the economy recovered from 2008?
Who can best address terrorism at home or abroad?
Should America be more focused on the world or at home?
However, given the dialogue in this campaign there are probably two questions that deserve more consideration. First is one that examines Trump’s campaign theme of “Make America Great Again.” Under the topic of “America’s Direction,” does that mean America is in decline or not, and what should be done about it?
Another opening question worth considering could be more personal. If anything, this has been a campaign about how much each candidate is disliked. A question that can explore why American voters could trust either one of them may actually help voters make a decision more than comparing tax plans.
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