Clinton and Trump go head-to-head in first presidential debate

BU pundits on what’s at stake in the first presidential debate

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The first debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, being held tonight, could get record TV ratings. Image by Flickr contributor Rich Gerard

onight’s first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is expected to draw a Super Bowl–sized TV audience of more than 100 million viewers. With recent polls showing the contest close to a dead heat, many pundits argue that tonight could be a make-or-break moment for the candidates.

Sponsored by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, the debate is being held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and will be moderated by Emmy-winning NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. It starts at 9 p.m. and will be carried live on all of the major networks and cable stations as well as on the internet. Tonight’s topics, selected by Holt, are: America’s direction, achieving prosperity, and securing America.

BU Today reached out to three faculty with extensive experience studying presidential politics and a BU student who is following this year’s contest with particular interest, asking for their take on the debate: Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), dean of the College of Communication and a former Pulitzer-winning Miami Herald reporter, political columnist, editorial page editor, and executive editor; Virginia Sapiro, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science, a women’s studies scholar, and a former dean of Arts & Sciences, the first woman to hold that position; Tammy Vigil a COM assistant professor of communication, whose research includes political campaign rhetoric; and journalism major Jonathan Sigal (COM’17), editor in chief and president of the Boston Political Review, BU’s student-run political magazine.

We asked them to talk about what’s at stake for the candidates tonight and what they anticipate from this first debate (two more will follow; this year’s vice presidential candidates will debate October 4). Their comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

How high are the stakes for Clinton and Trump?

Sapiro: This is a really big deal, because it’s the first time we’ll see, I hope, a really well-facilitated debate between the candidates. It’s certainly going to be very important in a very close election.

Fiedler: The level of animosity that we are going to see between the two is apt to be unprecedented, and the responses by the competing sides could be quite nasty. There could be a record number of people tuning in, but they’re tuning in, I think, because each side hates the other and really wants to see somebody get destroyed. It’s going to be the equivalent of a cage match.

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Virginia Sapiro, professor of political science.

Vigil: Clinton definitely has more to lose. I don’t think much is expected of Trump, and I don’t know how hard his feet will be held to the fire anyway if he does screw up. Clinton gets called on almost everything.

Sigal: I think the stakes are extremely high because Trump throws all the conventions, all traditional behavior out the window.

Is there one dynamic driving each candidate as they step on the stage tonight?

Fiedler: Hillary Clinton has a grasp of national security and foreign policy issues that is unrivaled by anyone except maybe President Obama and perhaps John Kerry (Hon’05). She is going to attempt to show mastery of that subject and that there’s no doubt that her knowledge is so much greater than Trump’s that he would be totally unqualified. I think she’s got to be careful with that, though. She could come across as arrogant and haughty, and Trump could find a way to make it appear as pomposity.

Sapiro: The issue is really those voters who haven’t entirely decided, but are interested enough to watch. For them the question is whether in the end they will prefer Hillary Clinton’s approach of steady, even-handed talk about issues versus Trump’s appeal to people who are frustrated and dislocated and upset, and his willingness to say provocative things.

Vigil: I think Clinton’s got a long road ahead of her in the debates. She knows policy, she knows all of the foreign leaders, what’s at play in the world, but whether she can actually convey that in a way that gets positive attention — it’s really difficult. And if she starts to play Trump’s game and tries to be the personality person, it comes across as her trying too hard and being disingenuous.

Sigal: Trump is impulsive, he’s willing to say anything and everything to draw a laugh, draw a little snickering smile from the crowd, to rile people up a bit. I don’t really think that’s Clinton’s style. I see her sticking to what she does best. But who knows, it’s almost like she has to go down to that and start pulling out some of those zingers and one-liners, or else she’s going to be losing at a game where Trump has set the rules. He has changed the ball game.

Current polls show both candidates with high unfavorable ratings. How might that affect the debate?

Vigil: Trump has built his brand on not being liked — he fires people. His gruffness, his not being liked, are actually part of his — I don’t know if the word is charm, but that’s the best I can come up with. I don’t think he’s got to worry too much about it.

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Thomas Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication.

Sigal: In light of the media story that won’t go away, about her health, I won’t be surprised if Trump comes out with something about that. Her response and her ability to navigate a candidate who has been extremely against her could make a big difference.

Fiedler: I think Trump needs to somehow show a sense of humor and maybe even a sense of graciousness toward Hillary Clinton. I don’t know how he would do it and certainly it would be out of character for him, but that’s the point. For Clinton, she doesn’t have to say it, but the fact that she is the first woman to head a major party ticket — it’s there. A lot of young women voters — I know this from around school — would say that it matters to them a lot that there be a woman who becomes president, but they don’t think Hillary is the right woman to do that. So if she can find a way to say, “I’m not perfect — however, I want to make people proud that I’m there,” I think that would touch people in the right way.

Sapiro: I’m getting really tired of unfavorability being the frame for everything, because if they both have really high favorable ratings or really low favorable ratings, that means it’s a close election. I’d like to see the press stop herding and everybody saying exactly the same thing.

How big an issue for Clinton is gender bias?

Vigil: I was looking at her likeability ratings, and every time she is getting toward a position of power, the likeability rating goes way down. There’s something the public doesn’t like about this particular woman seeking positions of power.

Fiedler: She can fall into pomposity very quickly if she positions herself as the smartest person in the room. Some of this I do think is sexism, but she really does have to show knowledge, but also that it is leavened with humility.

Sapiro: All this business about “she’s not likeable” and “she’s not warm,” some amount of that is the damned if you do, damned if you don’t that a woman faces. Trump has threaded the conversation through the past year with sometimes misogynistic comments, and he has a long history of doing that. The journalists and the media have played right into it.

Sigal: As a BU student, as a 21-year-old who’s grown up in the early 2000s, I don’t think gender should be an issue whatsoever. We are living in 2016, after all. Anyone who does take an issue with it needs to get with the times.

Trump has shown glaring gaps in his knowledge of the issues and has often told untruths during the campaign. How do you expect those to affect the debate?

Sigal: I think Clinton has the backbone to call him out on stage when he says something that isn’t true. And if she doesn’t do that, I think it’s a major swing and a miss by her campaign as a whole.

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Tammy Vigil, professor of communication.

Vigil: If the moderators don’t call him on it, then it will fall to Clinton to do so, which is both good and bad. I would love to see it, personally, because I don’t have a problem with a woman calling out a man for his errors. If it was Joe Biden who called him on it, it would just be two guys duking it out, like every debate we’ve ever seen.

Sapiro: Hillary Clinton — any gaffe will hurt her. But Donald Trump is nothing but gaffes, so it doesn’t matter what he says that way. There aren’t big mistakes he can make that will hurt him. But Clinton, if she coughs or laughs too much or doesn’t smile enough, that’s going to be a problem for her.

Fiedler: She is going to attempt to show mastery of the subject and no doubt she will attempt to show that her knowledge is so much greater than Trump’s that he would be totally unqualified. I think she’s got to be careful with that. She could come across as arrogant and haughty, and Trump could find a way to pull that Ronald Reagan reverse and make it appear as pomposity. On the other hand, I think the opportunity is there for Trump to do himself in by making a gaffe of some kind that finally does turn that small percentage of people who are undecided against him.

What’s the one thing each candidate cannot afford to do?

Fiedler: Trump cannot let the demons loose. He can’t be doing what he did in one Republican debate, where he was defending the size of his private parts. He has got to make sure he has reined in the beast that he sees as clever and that other people see as outrageous. I think with Hillary, what she can’t do is attempt to ridicule Trump as an ignoramus, or I think she’ll find herself vulnerable to his comeback, really flipping things around.

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Jonathan Sigal (COM’17), editor in chief and president of the Boston Political Review.

Sigal: I think with Clinton, in light of what’s been going on recently around her health — I don’t think this should be the issue, every person has days where they’re sick — but I think if she shows any moment of physical weakness, people may be asking, do we really want a person who doesn’t have perfect health. Whereas for Trump, if he is called out on stuff he’s saying that isn’t true, if he looks like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar while being called out on national TV, that could be really bad.

Vigil: I think there will be a lot of people looking to see whether Trump can step it up and become presidential, or whether he’ll just be very entertaining. There will be plenty of people who will be thrilled if he just entertains folks and it becomes a Trump show, like a little reality TV saga. How we respond to whatever it is the candidates say will tell a lot about us as a nation.

Sapiro: That’s not really my kind of question. That’s a pundit question. Voters should listen very carefully for themselves and pay attention and try to think about how they understand what happened — before anybody tells them what happened. And then they should all vote.

The first presidential debate is tonight, Monday, September 26, at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y. The second is Sunday, October 9, at Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Mo. The third and final debate is Wednesday, October 19, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The vice presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence is Tuesday, October 4, at Longwood University, Farmville, Va. All of the debates will be broadcast live starting at 9 p.m. EDT on all major networks and cable news stations. Find more information about the debates here.

The Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground is hosting a debate viewing party tonight in the George Sherman Union Conference Auditorium, 775 Commonwealth Ave., from 8:30 to 11 p.m. Fox News is hosting a debate party in collaboration with the BU chapter of Common Sense Action, from 9 to 11 p.m. at the Stone Science Building, 675 Commonwealth Ave. All BU students are welcome at both.

Originally published at

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