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What to look for in the first presidential debate

It’s finally here.

On Monday night, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton will share the stage at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, for the first of three scheduled presidential debates. Last week, The Hill reported that experts have predicted more than 100 million people will be watching. The debate will begin at 9 p.m. EST, and will be carried by all the broadcast and cable news networks, as well as Univision and PBS. The major networks, along with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, will also offer a free live stream.

The debate will be divided into six timed segments on major topics. The moderator, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, will open each segment with a question, for which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Then they’ll have an opportunity to respond to each other.

We asked journalism professor Alan Schroeder, an expert on televised debates, about the keys for both candidates, which has more to gain—or lose—in the debate, and the roles of both the moderator and real-time fact-checkers.

What are the keys for each candidate in this first debate?

For Trump, it’s a question of being taken seriously. He’s waged a very unorthodox campaign—one that’s been long on entertainment and short on substance. So I think the challenge for him is to try to reverse that perception.

For Hillary, there’s been a lack of enthusiasm—she’s been around a long time and people are a little bored with her and in many cases don’t like her. So how do you enthuse an audience that takes you for granted? That’s her big challenge. That, and grappling with the wild card of Donald Trump.

I think there’s equal risk on both sides. You have a fairly close race, with both candidates within striking distance. It’s a big moment for both of them.
— Journalism professor Alan Schroeder

Every election cycle is different, but what can be learned from a first presidential debate?

When you have a series of debates, as with the three we’re scheduled to have this time, the first one sets the tone because the outcome of the first debate affects what happens in the second and the third. There’s also a lot of interest in the first debate when the candidates have never debated each other. This will be the first time the candidates have been on stage together, so nobody really has a feel for how that will play out. The first debate will give us a much better indicator for what to expect as the debate series continues into October. The first debate is often amplified for those reasons and maybe has a little bit of an outsized influence over this series compared to some of the later ones.

Does one candidate over the other have more to gain or lose in this first debate?

I don’t think so. I think there’s equal risk on both sides. You have a fairly close race, with both candidates within striking distance. It’s a big moment for both of them.

I don’t think fact-checking is a very practical thing for moderators to do during a live debate, unless it’s a quick and obvious point.
— Schroeder

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will serve as moderator. What is the role of the moderator in this debate?

In this first debate, the format is more about the candidates than the moderator, as it should be. There will be open-ended discussion periods in this debate; it’s not too highly structured. It’s a little looser, and that looseness puts the pressure on the moderator to keep things moving along and make the distribution of time equitable. But the format really puts the focus on the candidates and their ability to maneuver that format and use it to his or her advantage. I hope the moderator gets out of the way and is there not as a participant but more as a facilitator.

I don’t think fact-checking is a very practical thing for moderators to do during a live debate, unless it’s a quick and obvious point. But in terms of who said what on a certain date, I don’t think that’s a productive use of the limited debate time.

You mentioned fact-checking. Journalists and others are now doing much more of this in real time. How does this influence how a debate is perceived?

Much of the fact-checking isn’t being done in real time; the tweeting about it is. Journalists will try to fact-check as much as possible in advance, because you can anticipate the kinds of things that will be said. But I think it plays an important role, while also requiring voters themselves to follow up on it. Unfortunately, there are many people who just don’t trust anything the media say, so the fact-checking may be falling on deaf ears. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Fact-checking is an important thing for journalists to do. I don’t think it’s necessarily the role of the moderator during the debate to do that. So people have to factor that into the debate-watching experience. The debate is important and you’ll get a lot of information from it, but there are other things you’ll want to contextualize the debate with. That includes fact-checking the statements that were made.

 

Photos of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr. Photos cropped. License.