How debate could help Trump ‘clinch the deal’

Donald Trump
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Donald Trump

On the eve of the first debate, the race is far closer than most experts had predicted. Hillary Clinton has fallen far from the commanding heights of August. Nationwide and swing state polls show Trump closing the gap quickly. The debate could break things wide open—in either direction.

The candidates will spend their time on stage fielding questions about policy and highlighting their differences. And virtually nothing that either of them say about any matter of substance at the debate will matter on Election Day.

What could swing votes is demeanor. Record numbers of voters are unenthusiastic about either candidate. They are desperate for something—anything—that will make them feel better about casting a vote for one of them. They will be watching the debate intently for cues that will allow them to vote without feeling ill. And that's why the debate is Donald Trump's to win or lose.

While Trump and Clinton have both been overexposed for decades, it is easier to envision some candidates playing the role of president than others. Clinton—like George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, and John McCain—is embedded in America's collective consciousness playing near-presidential roles. Trump—like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—is not. As a result, Clinton begins, as we have heard ad nauseum, ostensibly more "presidential"—a superficial advantage that history – including the recent GOP primaries - tells us confers few electoral benefits.

If Trump comes off as composed, serious and disciplined, as he has done while delivering some of his well-designed speeches and at his meetings with the presidents of Mexico and Egypt, he could convince many of the voters currently sitting on the sidelines to swing his way.

Many of them are already predisposed toward doing so. Polls show that large numbers of Republicans, Republican-leaning independents, and voters craving a change from the Obama years remain undecided or aligned for the moment with a third party candidate whose existence is all that stands between the current neck-and-neck race and a victory over Clinton. They want to vote for the Republican, but they are not yet comfortable voting for Trump.

For Clinton, the task is far harder. One downside of seeming presidential is that voters have already internalized the strengths and weaknesses she would bring to the office. There are unlikely to be voters who want to vote for Clinton, but who need a bit more information before doing so comfortably. It is thus likely that Trump's performance will have far more impact on all sides than Clinton's.

Furthermore, Clinton's recent public collapse and coughing fit, which she reluctantly attributed to non-contagious pneumonia amidst rumors of far worse, brought questions about her health into the foreground. If Clinton appears weak, frail, pale, or lethargic on the debate stage, it will lend credence to those rumors—and cost her dearly at the polls. To dispel them entirely, she will have to demonstrate vitality, ease, comfort, and joy—joie de vivre that she has never before displayed. Unfortunately for her, those attributes are Trump's greatest strength.

Unless Clinton manages to show a trustworthy, relatable, vibrant side that America has never seen, her only play at the debates will be to continue frightening voters about the implications of a Trump presidency--a play that she can count on her well-polished attack machine and much of the media to support.

The more presidential Trump seems on that stage, the harder that play becomes. And over the past six weeks, the notoriously unorthodox candidate has shown the discipline, the sobriety, and the substance of which many claimed he was incapable. The debate will test his ability to do the same in an unscripted environment that cries out for confrontation, both with his opponent and the moderator.

The debate is thus a chance for Trump to clinch the deal. America has seen all it needs to of Clinton and remains underwhelmed and uncomfortable. If America sees a Trump fully aware of the gravity of the decisions that a president faces, yet capable of maintaining his natural dynamism, wit, and comfort, he will have a very good October—on his way to the White House.

As surprising as this still sounds to the political class, it's the most dramatic evidence yet of a thesis long championed by Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway: the emptiness of the notion of electability. Back in 2006, Conway wrote "electability is a vague concept that excuses laziness, substitutes for effort and reinforces lemming-like agreement and shopworn convention."

As with almost everything in this oddest of election years, the biggest question heading into this first debate is "What will Trump do?" The presidency of history's purportedly least "electable" candidate may hinge on the answer.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D. and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients on interacting with the government and media. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.

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