Analyzing the candidates ahead of first presidential debate

SMU political experts take a look at what to expect from Clinton and Trump ahead of their first debate.

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DALLAS (SMU)SMU experts are available for interview on all things related to the current state of the presidential race. A full list of available faculty and their areas of expertise is available here.




On whether we’ll see anything new from either candidate…

  • “Both teams will look for a strategic concession. What can they reverse from their earlier positions that won’t cost them as much as it can gain them? For example, Hillary Clinton might say she’s been critical of George W. Bush in the past, but then say something nice about him to pick up moderate Republicans. The same goes for Donald Trump, who might say he shouldn’t have attacked Ted Cruz. They will be talking to possibly 100 million people, so this is an opportunity to say some small, ironic thing that could bring them two or four million votes.”

On what each candidate’s greatest strength is…

  • “Trump is very good at reading the public pulse and playing that against the media. Moderator Lester Holt is a very tempered person, but Trump could exploit anything that seems a little off and play it as Trump vs the media, which helped him a lot in the primaries.”
  • “Clinton’s strength is her experience; being a former Secretary of State, being a senator, being more familiar with politics and being calmer and more presidential than Trump. That will be her wheelhouse and she’ll probably tap into it again and again.”

On what each candidate’s greatest weakness is…

  • “I’m concerned Clinton’s biggest weakness might be not taking Trump seriously enough during preparations. I don’t think Bernie Sanders tested her the way the GOP candidates tested Trump, so she just has to be sure that she’s practiced properly to be ready for Trump’s personality.”
  • “Trump’s greatest challenge is to not be overly sensational. Inevitably, he’ll be somewhat sensational – and it would be a mistake to not be sensational at all – but don’t repeat any, ‘My hands are big,’ moments. Those moments are just too much and they detract from the growing need to know if he can be presidential. This election is beyond the, ’I want a fighter,’ stage and is now in the, ‘I want someone will be president,’ stage and he must mind that.”

Voth is SMU’s director of debate and an associate professor of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs. He can discuss:

  • debate prep
  • debate strategy
  • comparisons between this debate season and the 2012 election’s debate season




On how each candidate can win the debate…

  • “One of the things that has been increasingly amazing about the Trump campaign is its utter lack of concern for reality and its lack of concern for the facts. The real question going into the debate is whether the moderator will feel emboldened and enabled to do instant fact-checking. If the debate turns into an argument about the facts, she wins. If they get to create their own facts, he wins.”

On who has the advantage in a debate on foreign policy…

  • “Foreign policy should be a clear advantage for Hillary Clinton, having been Secretary of State. However, the entire message of the Donald Trump campaign is that the Clinton/Obama years are only the latest in a series of generation-long failures for Americans. Therefore, the fact that he will not have her level of expertise doesn’t matter.”

On how each candidate can ace the foreign policy question…

  • “We have set the bar historically low for Donald Trump. At this stage in the campaign, if he gives a speech without insulting a baby, a gold star mother, veterans or a disabled person, you consider it not only a success, but newsworthy. If he manages to get through the entire debate without causing a firestorm, he’ll be declared the victor by his party.”
  • “What Clinton needs to do to win is almost impossible. She needs to demonstrate a level of mastery that puts Trump to shame. The problem with Donald Trump is he has no sense of shame. Therefore, Clinton needs viewers to watch the debate and say, ‘Oh my goodness, he genuinely is not competent,’ but that requires him to participate.”

Engel is director of the SMU Center for Presidential History. His books include:

  • When Life Strikes the White House:  Death, Scandal, Sickness and Personal Tragedies in the Oval Office, Jeffrey A. Engel and Thomas J. Knock, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017
  • Into the Desert: Reflections on the Gulf War, Jeffrey A. Engel, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012
  • Rethinking Leadership and “Whole of Government” National Security Reform, with Joseph R. Cerami. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2010




On whether Trump’s style will hurt him when debating a woman…

  • “The style Trump employed in the GOP debates was a very aggressive and personally condescending style that worked well against Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and other GOP opponents, but I think the gender dynamics make that a loser for him in this debate. The question is: Does Trump have another gear? Is there some other style he can adopt other than that? I don’t know. But I think the style that made him look tough against male opponents will make him look bad against a female opponent.”

On what the biggest question of the night might be…

  • “I think some pretty big questions will center on foreign policy. Questions about America’s role in the world and what to do in the Middle East and relations with Russia and NATO. Those are areas where Trump has been perceived to have made some questionable remarks and where Clinton has tried to draw a big contrast. One thing people want to judge from a debate is how plausible these people are as commander in chief, so those could be subjects that really come into play.”
  • “The other thing I imagine is there will be some attempt to feel out what each person’s agenda is. I bet each is asked what specific things they will try to do in the first month or first 100 days of being sworn in if elected, and I’m sure Clinton has an answer for that, but I’m not sure Trump does.”

On how each candidate will try to reframe perceptions of themselves…

  • “Trump has a lot more riding on this debate as the range of possible outcomes for him is larger. He really could do himself an enormous amount of good if he appears to be thoughtful, deliberate, knowledgeable and presidential. People have big reservations about that, including many voters who don’t like Hillary and would like to endorse significant change, but who don’t feel safe with Trump’s brand of change. If he can send reassuring messages that appear reasonable, he could do a lot of good.”
  • “I’m not sure what Hillary can do in the debate to fix her trust issue. She’s clearly knowledgably about policy, she’s a solid debate performer from what we’ve seen in the past, but we more or less know what we’ll get from her so there’s less variability on that side.”

Wilson is an SMU associate professor of Political Science. His books include:

  • Politics and Religion in the United States.  With Michael Corbett and Julia Corbett-Hemeyer.  Routledge Press, 2013.
  • Understanding American Politics.  With Stephen Brooks and Douglas L. Koopman.  University of Toronto Press, 2013.
  • From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic.  Georgetown University Press, 2007.  Edited volume including authored chapter.




On how each candidate wins the economy question…

  • “Trump has generally painted with really broad strokes. ‘He’s going to get the best trade deal.’ ‘He’ll make us win again,’ and that’s worked so far. What I’ll watch for is whether he starts to offer any granularity to these plans. The risk of offering granularity is you end up in a policy conversation with a policy wonk. The risk of avoiding granularity is that he begins to seem like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about next next to a policy wonk. I read a great line that described this debate as Bart Simpson vs. Lisa Simpson. One candidate might be ready to school the other on substance, but the other is funny and bombastic and it works for them.”
  • “Clinton’s challenge will be to not come off as the sort of bookish marm who might be really smart, but who nobody wants to be around. How does she seem to not scold the viewer, particularly the viewer who has some interest in Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton will stand there like she did when was against Sanders where she’d basically say, ‘Look, I know he’s attractive and you want to vote for him because he’s like a pudding pop, but you need to eat your vegetables because they’re good for you,’ and vegetables are what Clinton’s policies represent. Clinton’s challenge is delivering policies that she believes will give people better lives without making them seem boring and like more of the same.”

On what questions Martin hopes each candidate faces…

  • “Trump is hinging his whole campaign on the notion that he really cares about working people. I’d like the moderator to ask him to detail a specific economic program he has in mind that will improve the lives of working people. How would he go about renegotiating NAFTA? And be specific. I’d like to see him answer that question, because he has no idea.”
  • “I’d ask Clinton: If we could roll back the clock to when the news broke that you had a private server, how would you respond to the very first question asked about that server? What would your response be now?”

Martin is an SMU assistant professor of Communication Studies in the Meadows School of the Arts. She can discuss:

  • economic messages in political campaigns
  • presidential campaign strategy
  • religious voters and evangelical social movements


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