What to watch for in the first debate: The ‘fake excuse’

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

The polls say the number of undecided voters in this presidential election is unusually high.

In a head-to-head race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows 11 percent of voters are still undecided. That's a very large number for this late date and more than a 37-percent increase over this time in 2012, when only eight percent of voters said they still couldn't make up their minds.

This is probably the biggest reason why so many pundits believe this close election will be decided by the presidential debates, especially the first one coming up this Monday night.

The debates will, indeed, be important, but not because they will change the minds of any voters or give guidance to those who can't make a choice. They will be crucial because they will once again provide millions of Americans with rational-sounding excuses to finally go public with their voting choices.

Here's why: There really aren't a significant number of undecided voters — despite what the polls say. Most people decided a long time ago. The problem is, a lot of people are reluctant to ADMIT who they plan to vote for.

That's where the debates come in. In fact, this is where the debates always come. What the debates provide to every voter who's wary to make their presidential choices public is a series of rational — but fake — excuses to justify a decision they made weeks or months before based on reasons that also may be a little embarrassing to admit.

Let's be clear: The reason why so many more people say they're undecided this time around is the fact that the two leading candidates are very unpopular. Saying you support either candidate publicly means you are almost definitely going to anger someone standing within earshot and most Americans don't love having political arguments (unless you live in New York!). But the debates provide shier voters plenty of real statements or candidate gestures they can use as a rational excuse for saying they've finally made a choice. And since so many people watch the debates, those supposedly once-undecided voters can be sure the excuse they use is at least something their peers saw, too. It's not like some wacky data found on an obscure or biased website.

Throughout history, the debates have provided voters some great fake reasons to finally come out of the electoral closet. In 1976, Jimmy Carter had the election sewn up as soon as he won the Democratic nomination thanks to a public that wanted to punish the Republicans and all crooked politicians for Watergate. People were relieved to see a Washington outsider it could choose instead. But it was still a little weird to proclaim support for someone with no foreign policy experience in the midst of the Cold War. Then came the debate where President Gerald Ford misspoke by saying the Soviets didn't dominate Poland or the rest of Eastern Europe. Suddenly, Ford's experience wasn't anything the voters who quietly backed Carter needed to be embarrassed about ignoring. The debate didn't change their minds, it helped them feel better about making their opinion public.

Most of the presidential debates since then haven't provided that kind of stark gaffe, but they're just as effective because it's not a slam dunk the decided-but-uneasy voters need. All they need is something somewhat memorable to use as that magic excuse. So when the supposedly unstable and war-happy Ronald Reagan seemed poised and serious in his 1980 debate with Carter, that was excuse enough. When Michael Dukakis couldn't definitely answer the question about whether he'd support the death penalty for his wife's hypothetical killer, that was excuse enough. And when George H.W. Bush committed the supposed mistake of looking at his watch during a 1992 debate, voters uneasy about admitting they were voting for the nationally inexperienced Bill Clinton had their excuse, too.

It didn't matter that each of those past debate examples, from Ford to Bush, didn't really prove anything about the candidates' abilities to lead as president. What mattered is that they were very public statements or gestures that served as something supposedly undecided voters could grab onto with reasonable assurance their neighbors and colleagues wouldn't beat them up for doing so.

With that in mind, look for a lot of closet Trump supporters to point to any signs of their candidate keeping his composure as more than enough of an excuse to finally say they've "decided" to reluctantly back him. Shy Clinton voters will probably cite any debate response where she rattles off insider expertise on foreign policy as their excuse. Physical appearance will play a big role, too, but not as many voters will be willing to admit that. Still, if Clinton looks sick or Trump makes a lot of rude and dismissive faces they too could serve as phony excuses for the supposedly undecided to make a public choice.

Debates are, indeed, crucial, because they get those publicly on-the-fence voters to finally admit they've made a choice. This helps the polls become more accurate and reduces the chance of some kind of tumultuous election night surprise. But anyone who says the debates really convinced them of anything in this or any other election is probably just not telling the truth.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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