Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Near Impossibility of Clinton Winning the First Debate

Before it even takes place the easiest prediction in the world to make regarding the first presidential
debate between Clinton and Trump is that it will be nearly impossible for Clinton to win it.  The reasons are simple–sexism and the expectations game.

There are many reasons why Hillary Clinton could or will lose the first debate.  She is not a strong  public speaker.   Or she might not provide good answers to tough questions.  Or she will continue to be dogged by issues surrounding her e-mails or even something substantive and real that matter, such as her policies toward ISIS, health care, or financial regulation.  All are possibilities.

But what will doom her first is sexism.  She is trapped by a double-standard that Trump will not face.  If on the one hand Clinton is too aggressive she will be saddled with the bitch word;   too passive and she will be perceived as too weak, too female, to be a commander-in-chief.  If she is too policy focused she risks turning off too many, further reinforcing the impression that she is too cold or ambitious.  If she getting into a yelling match or goes into the gutter against Trump she is just a nag. No matter what she says she will be criticized.

But presidential debates are more watched than heard.  Since the beginning of televised presidential debates in 1960 it is how one looks that is more important than what one says.  Radio listeners thought Richard Nixon beat John Kennedy in 1960 in terms of content while most who watched declared the latter the winner because he looked young, strong, and in command while the former sweated with a five-o-clock shadow.  The medium is the message as Marshal McLuhan famously declared and for television the medium is appearance.

Even before she utters a word Clinton will be judged by her appearance.  She will be poured over in terms of what she wore (another pantsuit!), how her hair looked, her make up, her weight, or whether she looked sick.  She will be judged by her body language.  Think back to the primaries when Sanders wore the same cheap $99 Woolworths suit everywhere he went.  No one criticized him on that.  But lest Clinton wear the same pantsuit as before or not have all her hairs in place she will be harshly criticized for that and the lead story come Tuesday will be about her fashion mistakes.

But the sexism is even deeper that how she looks.  She will also be Laurerized.  Laurerized is the new verb coined by Matt Laurer’s sexist treatment of Clinton a couple of weeks ago when he constantly interrupted her but not Trump in the Commander’s forum.    The media’s double-standard  will box her in.  Finally think even about this campaign and how the candidates are reverenced )and even self-referenced): Hillary v Trump.  The female is often referred to by her first name, the male  his last–a subtle but powerful form of sexism that treats women like children.

Clinton thus faces a difficult challenge.  She cannot be too aggressive or passive, too logical or emotive, or too strong or weak.  She has to look just right.  She needs to thread a nearly impossible  needle to be declared the winner–a task many women find everyday at work but not magnify that problem on a national stage and one will find it almost impossible to navigate.

But add to that the expectations game.  Clinton I expected to mop the floor with Trump on substance.  If she does not dominate she is declared the loser.  Trump wins simply by showing up and not insulting anyone (too much), or he wins if he insults Clinton, or he wins if he just looks presidential (read as be male and looking like he is in control).  The expectations are so low for Trump that almost anything he will count as a victory.

This is especially the case in the polarized political and media environment we live in today.  Half the public has already declared Clinton will lose not matter what she says, and with that half the media and blogosphere has already rendered its judgment.  The post-debate pundits will issue the usual and predictable verdicts, make it difficult for a real consensus to emerge regarding who has won on merits.

Finally, this polarization and the politainment focus of the debates will render whatever substance there is superfluous, where neither truth will matter nor content seem important. Clinton cannot win on merits because merit does not matter. In so many ways, expect the debate to be cast as a great entertainment venture where all Trump needs to do is to call Clinton “an ignorant slut” and we have reality mocking the famous 1979 SNL Dan Aykroyd-Jane Curtin Point/Counterpoint skit.

It will be nearly impossible for Clinton to win the first debate.


  1. Will you be evaluating/analyzing the language from the debates?

  2. My American ideals self says- "you are wrong, the voter thinks." My realistic self says - "Most voters react to propganda."