The Four Possible Debate Scenarios

Is it actually happening? Is this real life?

It’s finally fight night at Hofstra University! Lester Holt is the referee, but we, the hundred or so million people watching on television, are the judges. What type of verbal pugilism can we expect from tonight’s bout?

The way I see it, while the details cannot be predicted, the realistic broader scenarios for Tuesday morning narratives number four. Here they are, ranked from least to most likely:


4. Donald Trump surprises us with a substantive debate performance, catching Hillary Clinton totally off guard.

Trump being substantive on the level that we often get in these general election debates feels unlikely, especially considering he has supposedly put in minimal debate prep and has totally eschewed mock debates. Also unlikely is Hillary Clinton caught with her pantsuit down; she is reportedly preparing for multiple kinds of Trumps.

Still, while this development feels like the least likely viable scenario, we can’t rule out that Trump is playing the expectations game beautifully and far too many people are falling for it. If Trump surprises the audience with substance and his opponent flounders in response, Trump will take a sizable lead.

3. Trump embarrasses himself by showing little substance and an unpresidential temperament, while Clinton calmly picks him apart and shows that experience matters.

On the flip side, we have Clinton’s best case scenario, which I see as just a bit more likely. If the same Trump from the Republican Primary debates shows up thinking he can get away with circular answers, misdirection, and his Pantagruelian persona, Clinton will be in a great position to reassure swing voters that there is a grown up in this election and everything will be okay. She certainly has the knowledge and confidence to do so, though the bigger challenge is finding the tone in which to do it.

2. Trump remains calm but offers little of substance. Clinton tries to antagonize him and looks unbecoming in the process.

1. Trump remains calm but offers little of substance. Clinton offers plenty of substance, but is comparatively less successful in winning over swing voters.

There’s an old Russian proverb: “The marvel is not that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all.” Is Trump that dancing Russian bear? (Insert Putin joke here.) If he debates poorly on substance but at least shows up and acts the part of presidential candidate, will the American people marvel? I think yes.

That would be unfortunate for the Clinton Campaign. These two scenarios are almost totally in Trump’s control. As I explained with my last post, Trump has incredibly low expectations, and it won’t take much to meet them.

For all that the mainstream media has done to either help or hurt Trump, one result is clear: he has a reputation. The media has created a monster (the accuracy of this portrayal depends largely on one’s allegiances). Tonight, the millions of undecided viewers who have remained unengaged expect to see this monster that fits the headlines of the articles they don’t read and the promos for newscasts they don’t watch.

Of course, a Trump supporter thinks that he is not a monster but a bogeyman, an almost totally fabricated antagonist dreamed up in order to scare children into voting for the Democrat. If Trump does not behave badly, they will feel vindicated. Meanwhile, the undecided voters expecting to see the media’s version of Trump will be surprised that he isn’t as monstrous as advertised.

So if Trump can remain calm, if he can show presidential temperament, if he accidentally spits out a spasm of eloquence, he’ll win the night. I think Trump knows this, and he therefore won’t act the part that the media has, depending on your perspective, created or reported.

In essence, the very media which so many Trump supporters hold responsible for his undeserved reputation might ultimately be his saving grace — he can easily dispel the exaggerated villain it created. I expect him to capitalize.

Thus, these are the two most likely scenarios, and Clinton’s response will then determine which one of the two it is. Still, whether she tries to provoke him and fails or, more preferably for her, does her own thing reasonable well, the Tuesday morning story is that Trump beat expectations and Clinton, at best, met them. Her champions in the media will try to stress just how unsubstantive Trump was, but if they haven’t won her the election to this point, I’m not sure post-debate spin will be any different.


I started this post with boxing language, so it seems fitting to ring the final bell with some, too. I don’t think either corner scores a knockout tonight, although scenarios 3 and 4 would certainly send one of the combatants to the mat, a canvas from which they can still rise. Instead, we’ll almost certainly turn to the scorecards of we, the judges. How will we evaluate the two fighters? Will points be scored on facts, details, and prosecutorial finesse, or by tone, temperament, and one-liners?

We’re about to find out. Ding ding.

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5 thoughts on “The Four Possible Debate Scenarios

  1. I think the debate is little more than an emotional event. Anyone who cares about substance or is led by emotion has already made their decision. A small percentage of viewers will make a new decision based on which candidate seems like the nicer person. The results may come down to a single sentence fragment or a simple gesture.

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