It's not as much of a left-field question as you might think. Moderators for the debate have agreed to consider asking the most submitted questions on the Open Debate Coalition website.
Here are a few of the top questions as of Friday afternoon:
1) Would you support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales and what will you do to protect Second Amendment right?
The first part of this one sounds like a real meatball right over the plate for Clinton. She and her fellow Democrats love to talk about how there are loopholes in the gun laws and they need to be strengthened. Not so fast. If Clinton uses this question to launch into her well-worn new gun laws mantra, she will be missing the key goal of all town hall debates: Connecting with the actual voter asking you the question.
So, instead of that likely trope about what she thinks about gun violence and her own personal experiences with it, Clinton should first take a page out of hubby Bill Clinton's book and ask the questioner to elaborate on the question with any personal experiences he or she may have with gun violence. Even if the questioner has none, Clinton will then have an excuse to talk about more of her own without sounding like she was looking to mention the name of a random gun victim no matter what. And soliciting more personal information from the questioner absolutely makes it look like the candidate cares.
Trump is likely to briefly answer that question as he did in the first debate by saying he supports keeping criminals from getting guns. But if he does that, he'd be missing an opportunity to score big points by talking about how we already know how to reduce gun violence and gun crimes: Do what Bill Clinton did and put more cops on the streets! Trump should continue by saying that Hillary Clinton can no longer support that smart policy because of her weaker relationship with law enforcement. And that's where he can remind everyone of his endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police and other police unions.
2) Do you support expanding, and not cutting, Social Security's modest benefits?
Trump is likely to answer this question by promising to cut spending in other government programs and make Social Security a priority that can be expanded. That's the kind of answer that will help him solidify his strong lead among elderly voters. It's hard to think of a way Trump can improve on that.
Clinton is likely to repeat her first debate promise to remove the payroll income caps on Social Security taxes and thus tax the rich more to fund it. But she would be wise to do Trump one better and mention a specific spending program or two that she would cut to free up more money for Social Security. With Trump more likely to talk about cuts very broadly and vaguely, Clinton could come away with the voters identifying her more clearly with spending cuts because she named what she'd specifically cut.
3) Would you act to repeal Citizens United?
This one is a trap for Clinton. She has long said she would repeal the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed for an avalanche of more corporate funding for political campaigns. And she's likely to simply repeat that again. But the problem is that, in this election, she is getting almost all of the corporate funding! Clinton must find a way to make a plausible argument for how she'll stop the flow of corporate cash in our elections while she's awash in that cash herself. The best way to do that is to slightly change the subject and start talking about the tough words she recently had for currently unpopular corporations like Wells Fargo and EpiPen maker Mylan Laboratories. It will be a bit of a stretch, but it won't be totally crazy for Clinton to point to that as "proof" that she will be willing to bring big businesses to heel.
Trump is likely to simply say that he hasn't taken so much corporate money and he went through his successful primary run without really taking any at all. But what he should do is make sure he goes into very specific detail in his answer. He should take a page from Senator Bernie Sanders' book and talk about all the people who supported him with small donations. He should talk about how he's proved you don't need Wall Street backing to win even the supposedly business-friendly Republican Party's presidential nomination. In other words, he should find a way to say: "I already effectively repealed Citizens United with my campaign" as many times and in as many ways as time allows.
4) As president, what are the steps you will take to address climate change?
Several different versions of this basic question have appeared on the coalition website, so it's likely we'll hear a question about the environment on Sunday night. This seems like it will be a real problem for Trump, who has publicly brushed off the most severe predictions about climate change in the past.
Trump will probably be very tempted to say he wants to focus more on the economy or he wants to spend more time finding out the real effects of climate change as opposed to making job-killing policies based only on estimates and guesses. But here too, it would be better to allow the questioner to talk more first.
Trump should ask the voter what about climate change frightens him or her the most. There's a very good chance the response to that follow-up from Trump will put the questioner more on the spot. All of a sudden everyone watching will be scrutinizing that voter more than they will be fixed on Trump. It will also help Trump speak briefly about the one thing about the environment the voter does single out. In other words, it gets the voter to answer the question for him and look interested in the process.
This is another question where Clinton seems to have an advantage. But if she goes into her usual story about how she is very concerned about climate change and she wants to spend more on solar energy, it will be another missed opportunity. And if she takes that question as an excuse to connect Hurricane Matthew to man-made climate change as she did in referring to Hurricane Hermine last month, that would be a terrible mistake making it look like she's trying to take advantage of a current tragedy.
Instead, she, too, needs to begin by getting more out of the questioner to make her response more personal. Focusing, however briefly, on the specific climate change fear of the actual questioner is the key to "winning" this question for both candidates.
5) How do you plan to make health care affordable for EVERYONE?
Trump has been promising to repeal Obamacare throughout his campaign without a lot of details. He's likely to do that again. The mistake in this debate would be to try to flesh out that promise with those missing details. That's boring and no one will remember it anyway. A better idea is to mention one good point about Obamacare and then pinpoint no more than three big failings of Obamacare and then simply say he'd fix that right away. Pointing out one positive of the program, like getting the insurance companies to cover very sick people who the insurance companies had been rejected before, is a good way to look more caring. Then going into specific failings is a good way to make Trump look more detail oriented than usual.
Obamacare is still not very popular in the national polls, but neither are the GOP Members of Congress who haven't been able to fix or replace it. Trump can avoid getting lumped in with them with that more detailed answer.
For Clinton, this is a really loaded question. It's clear at least some people in her campaign want her to be more critical of President Obama's signature achievement, based on Bill Clinton's description of the ACA as a "crazy system" earlier this month. She's likely to praise Obamacare in the answer to this question and not go anywhere near where her husband went on the issue. But the smart move at this late date would be to follow Bill Clinton's lead. It's time for the Clinton campaign to play a little chicken with the White House and ask them if they really will hold off on supporting her campaign now that the entire administration and President Obama himself have basically called Trump an unmitigated disaster. Clinton can't bash Obamacare, but she should acknowledge some serious problems with it and promise to fix it and make it more affordable… and dare the Obama team to punish her for saying so.
The candidates, like the rest of us, have access to these potential questions. Let's see who's better prepared and is able to connect with voters.