Republicans and Democrats are doing their best to manage expectations ahead of Monday’s first presidential debate, with the Republican National Committee portraying Hillary Clinton on Thursday as a seasoned debater and Donald Trump as a non-politician without formal “one-on-one debate experience.”
“Clinton’s been at it since she’s been on the debate team in high school, and she has shined on some of the biggest stages before,” RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer wrote in a memo to reporters.
Candidates traditionally downplay their strengths and praise their opponent’s abilities ahead of debates so it can be argued afterwards they exceeded — rather than fail to live up to — expectations.
“For Clinton, high expectations stem from ample experience,” Spicer wrote. “Clinton is a career politician who has spent years sharpening her debate reflexes and beefing up on public policy. Donald Trump is new to the format.”
Spicer added that aside “from the primary debates (which have lower levels of attention focused on them and many more participants), Trump’s lack of formal, political, one-on-one debate experience gives Clinton a significant advantage.”
Like Republicans, Clinton is also attempting to lower expectations for her performance, while raising them for Trump. “Donald Trump is a self-proclaimed great debater who won every one of the Republican debates,” Clinton recently said. “So I take nothing for granted.”
Read the full RNC memo here:
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Sean Spicer, RNC Chief Strategist and Communications Director @seanspicer
RE: Will Clinton Meet Expectations In The First Debate?
DATE: September 22, 2016
Election Day is now less than fifty days away, and with national polling reflecting a surge of momentum for Donald Trump, the pressure is squarely on Hillary Clinton to live up to her reputation as a talented debater at a time when millions of undecided voters will be glued to their screens.
This view is informed in large part due to Clinton’s adroit performances in past debates. Clinton’s been at it since she’s been on the debate team in high school, and she has shined on some of the biggest stages before. In 2008, in the thick of the Democrat primary, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod admitted Clinton had “a very strong debate performance” against then-Senator Obama. In 2016, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was frustrated by the fact Clinton did not make a single “significant mistake” during the five times they were on stage together. She knows how to debate, and by all accounts, she is a methodical and intense consumer of information in her preparations beforehand.
Just ask her campaign. Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon described Clinton’s approach in seeing the debate stage as a “proving ground.” Chief Strategist Joel Benenson echoed Fallon by declaring of Trump, “I don’t think he can go toe to toe with her,” and speculated Clinton “will come out on top.” Not to be outdone, Clinton surrogate Ed Rendell said she held her own on many occasions in 2008 against Obama, who he called “probably the greatest debater in public speaking, in politics, in our lifetime.”
The optimism in the Clinton camp is shared in the media as well, where there is almost unanimous agreement Clinton is an adept debater. Dana Bash, Chris Matthews, and Chris Hayes note how “seasoned” she is, and more pundits than we can count (including John Heilemann, Wolf Blitzer, and Mark Shields) laud her talent, experience and debate skills.
Trump hasn’t been running for president for 24 years, he’s spent his career as a successful businessman. Few are expecting the same level of polish from a verbal gunslinger whose rhetorical strength is speaking to the heart – and the gut – of the American people.
Aside from the Super Bowl, the first debate has very high potential to be the most watched television event of the year. With so much riding on this moment and a wealth of experience working in her favor, Hillary Clinton has no excuse not to turn in a near-flawless performance.