Presidential debates will pit policy vs. reality show drama, says ISU professor

Ben Crosby

AMES, Iowa – Ben Crosby can list several reasons why Hillary Clinton should have a clear advantage in the presidential debates. She’s policy driven, more experienced, can defend her positions and has a better temperament for a serious debate, said Crosby, an associate professor of English and speech communication at Iowa State University. All qualities that would serve Clinton well, if this were a traditional debate.

“Clinton has the policy advantage, but Trump has the reality show advantage,” Crosby said. “Trump is a wild card and American politics are a wild card because of the reality show quality, so in that sense Trump has the advantage. It’s going to be interesting to see these two paradigms clash.”

That “wild card” factor partly explains why Crosby feels there is more pressure on Clinton to land some punches during the first debate. Trump, on the other hand, simply needs to absorb the blows and follow the rule of political debate – do no harm.

“No one expects him to be Cicero,” Crosby said. “For political debates, as long as your opponent doesn’t land any mortal blows, you’re fine. You don’t have to win so much as you just need to avoid losing.”

For that reason, it’s unlikely that Trump will offer much substance during the first debate. Crosby says Trump’s lack of detail on policy or initiatives hasn’t really hurt him yet, but the debates could make a difference. The fact that Clinton can call out Trump’s lack of transparency and substance may put more pressure on him to respond. However, until it starts to do real damage, Crosby doesn’t expect Trump will change, adding that it would be risky for Trump to outline any major policy positions.

A unique moment in the campaign

The debates are a major turning point in the campaign. It’s the first time voters will see the candidates go head-to-head and confront one another on the issues. Voters can learn a lot by gauging how Clinton and Trump handle pressure and respond to questions in real time, Crosby said. He is curious to see how each will handle particular flaws in their personality or campaign.

For Trump, a major question will be how he engages one-on-one with a woman. During the Republican primary debates, Trump sparred with Carly Fiorina and moderator Megyn Kelly, but it wasn’t a direct hit, Crosby said. Fiorina was one of several opponents that Trump attacked. And his beef with Kelly centered around passive aggressive remarks on Twitter.

“If Trump tries to bully Clinton the same way he bullied Marco Rubio or John Kasich, he may come off as finally having gone too far,” Crosby said.

Clinton’s greatest challenge will be overcoming the image that she is weak and not strong enough to be president – an image reinforced by her health issues at a 9/11 memorial service. Crosby says Trump has continually said Clinton lacks stamina and the critique is starting to stick. Clinton must find a way to fire back when Trump confronts her on this issue.

“Trump likes to ridicule his opponents. When you’re a policy-driven, deliberative politician, like Clinton, you have to adjust to a dynamic in which deliberation and policy are hardly your biggest problem. Your biggest problem is dealing with an opponent who is condescending and ridiculing. I don’t know if she’s prepared to do that,” Crosby said.