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Debate tactics: Trump taps into voter anger, while Clinton plays it safe

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York.
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York.

Two clearly different messages from both candidates are emerging in the first presidential debate. HillaryClinton opened with a list of future results for the economy she'd like to see. Donald Trump opened with a look at what he considers to be the real problems cutting into our economic prosperity, especially bad trade deals and outsourcing.

It's not clear which strategy will win over any undecided voters, but what is clear is that every major poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. Trump is hoping to tap into that disappointment and it seems like Clinton is hoping to cheer them up.

In most other election years, a more optimistic approach, even without specifics, has often been the best tactic. It worked for Richard Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and of course Barack Obama in 2008. But this year has been so different in so many ways from past elections. Trump is clearly betting that the dissatisfaction that put him over the top in the primaries is still out there among independent voters. Clinton is playing the ultimate safe card along the lines of her choice of Tim Kaine for a running mate.

And this gambit is showing up in both of the candidates' tone as well. Clinton is doing a lot of smiling, which is usually the gold standard in presidential elections. Trump sounds like many unhappy Americans. It's not clear if Clinton is channeling the voices of any Americans or just hoping to appeal to their more optimistic dreams. Both tactics seem risky so far.

But perhaps with Trump's movement and the Bernie Sanders' de facto protest movements gaining so much traction over the past year, I'd put my money on anger.

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

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