With a massive estimated viewing audience of over 100 million, tonight's debate could prove to be the defining event of what has already been the most unpredictable presidential election in history.
Each candidate will walk on the stage with higher unfavorables than favorables, and a battleground map that is, as of right now, far more competitive than it was just eight weeks ago.
While Clinton still has the advantage in terms of polls, there are enough undecided voters and "soft leaners" (folks who lean one way but could change their minds) to make the impact of this debate a potential make-or-break moment. In fact, polls show that more than 20 percent of voters in crucial swing states could be influenced by Monday's debate.
So, should you expect a brutal brawl or a more sanguine debate? Probably a bit of both, but what the campaigns should be asking is this: What do undecided voters, who have real doubts and concerns about both Trump and Clinton, want to see and hear?
To help answer that question, my firm, Park Street Strategies, conducted a pre-debate focus group with undecided voters in Florida, and their insights were telling:
- No personal or negative attacks: Both of these candidates are drowning in a sea of negativity. Voters, specifically undecided voters, have had it. And while they expect a circus, they are demanding better. Personal attacks and cheap shots may make each base scream with joy, but it will not win over this critical bloc of voters. So, attacker beware. Now, who does it hurt more if they go negative? Our group was split nearly evenly between Trump and Clinton, but the majority made clear that it would hurt both equally.
- Tell me why to vote for you: For months, in barrage after barrage, the Trump and Clinton campaigns have told voters why their opponent shouldn't be president. In fact, undecided voters already have a pretty good idea of why they shouldn't vote for Trump or Clinton, but they have very little idea about why they should vote for them. As one respondent commented, "Don't tell me what he's done or she's done. Tell me what you've done [and will do]."
- Clinton's challenges to overcome: While these undecided voters clearly see Clinton as the more experienced and knowledgeable candidate, this is not a résumé contest – if it were, this election would have been over before it started. For Clinton, the focus must be on the voters and on the future, not on reciting a résumé of past accomplishments that they already know about. If Clinton can outline her positive vision in the debate – while still speaking to voters' frustrations in an impassioned and humble tone – she will move undecided voters.
- Trump's challenges to overcome: Trump must not only remain composed, but he must also play against type. Rhetoric alone will not be enough for these voters – they've heard it too many times before. They want to hear him provide specific and credible details of what he will do, and how he will do it. For many of these undecided voters, the days of being satisfied with Trump providing empty answers by citing his unrelated business experience, or avoiding the questions entirely, are over. Now, if Trump can surprise these voters by proving he has the temperament, maturity, and knowledge to be president, he will move undecided voters.
- Own your mistakes and accept responsibility: When you are a candidate who has high negatives, you have two options in a debate: (1) pray it doesn't come up, (2) or tackle it head on. The smarter candidate will tackle it head on. Clinton, for example, has an opportunity to effectively address the trust issue, especially if she addresses it first. Almost three-quarters of the group agreed as one respondent noted, "I don't need an explanation of what she did, I just want her to own it and apologize." Trump's challenge is arguably far greater, since he has seemed incapable of or unwilling to admit his mistakes. If Trump is incapable of apologizing for his past offensive statements, it will speak volumes to such undecided voters about what kind of person he is, and what kind of president he would be. It could prove devastating to his campaign if he seeks to rationalize and defend these statements in front of such a massive audience.
So, who will win this first debate? Good question. I honestly don't know, and neither did this group of undecided voters. When asked, 23 of 29 respondents said they weren't sure.
But, Trump has the advantage because of his ability and experience in TV. He understands, perhaps better than most traditional politicians, the power that TV moments can have. So, will he exploit that, or will he fall into his caricature trap? Clinton has the advantage when it comes to facts and details, but she must balance that with a need to inspire and speak to the frustrations that so many in this country feel right now.