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Politics & Law Series: Expert Comment

What to expect from the ‘most controversial ever’ US presidential debate

By Professor Inderjeet Parmar, Department of International Politics

by City Press Office (General enquiries)

Professor Inderjeet ParmarThis is probably the most interesting and controversial televised debate ever, given the nature of the contest thus far, which has defied expert predictions. It may attract a record number of viewers, possibly around 100 million, as the candidates are squared up as Establishment Hillary Clinton versus the man of the People, Donald Trump.

Trump has a reputation for off-the-cuff rhetoric directed against minorities, the military, and for calling his opponents names – such as ‘Crooked Hillary’, ‘Sick Hillary’, ‘Lying Ted’ – so may suffer politically should he give full vent to his natural instincts.

This would be a gift to Clinton – more composed, sure of policy positions, steeped in the political establishment, a trained lawyer, known for policy knowledge but lacking the human, popular touch. But lately, Trump has been more composed, more ‘on message’, seemingly better controlled and sticking to scripted speeches, such as on military spending, which was drawn largely from briefings from The Heritage Foundation, a core conservative think tank at the heart of the conservative establishment.

Trump may push undecided voters towards third-party candidates

Trump has appointed Ed Feulner, the former head of Heritage, to his campaign transition team. Together with his revamped campaign team, led by Kellyanne Conway, Trump seems to be developing a strategy to convince the 18 to 20 per cent of voters who are either undecided or are planning to vote for third-party candidates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

Lately, Trump has been addressing African-American audiences at black churches, a strategy not so much aimed at black votes but at attracting white votes repelled by his xenophobia and racist comments but who normally vote Republican. He would also want to shore up even his own voters, 52 per cent of whom think that he would not be a very good president.

Clinton to capitalise on policy knowledge

For Clinton, it’s trying to show her credentials but also winning trust, which may be difficult to do in a debate format. She may need to show that despite her establishment background and credentials, she is for the common people, the squeezed middle class, those who’ve lost out from the crash of 2008, who think the banks and financial institutions have got away without penalty.

Trump may try to appear more presidential but may lack the policy knowledge in depth that is Clinton’s forte. That might provoke an outburst from Trump to throw Hillary off her game and enter the fray in a manner alien to her instincts and experience.

Outcome will show value of polls that put Clinton ahead

The election race at national level is close – just 2 to 3 per cent in it, with Clinton leading. At state level, Clinton wins much bigger via electoral college vote projections. Forecaster Nate Silver puts Clinton’s chances of winning at around 56 per cent and Trump’s at around 44 per cent.

Tonight’s first of three head-to-head debates may clarify matters. And it’s clear that Senate races are affected by the ebb and flow of presidential politics, as what damages Trump damages Republican senators. The consequences of tonight’s debate are likely to be significant.

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