Prior to Tuesday’s offering in Farmville, the last such national candidates’ debate in the Commonwealth of Virginia was in 1992 – well before Blackberries, back taxes and beauty queens drove the presidential narrative.
That debate, on the campus of the University of Richmond, holds two dubious distinctions.
It marked the first time that the two parties’ candidates met in a “town-hall” format, with questions posed by undecided voters. Prior to the night of Oct. 15, 1992, and dating all the back to the 1960 election, journalist panels had handled the honors.
Second, you might remember then-President George H.W. Bush looking down at his watch, no doubt wondering if and when the night would end (“Only 10 more minutes of this crap,” Bush would later say he was thinking at the time).
As you might deduce, I’m no fan of this style of presidential debating – and not just because, at the time, I was working for the President for whom time stood still.
One complaint: these events place too high of a premium on shallow stagecraft (“Do I get off my stool and walk around? Should I go over and hug that voter?”)
Second, the questions can be a little too flaky. For example, right after President Bush checked his watch: a fuzzy question about how the national debt had personally affected his life; whether he could “honestly find a cure for the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them”.
If you’re more interested on political forensics than pro football, here are three things to be on the lookout for, on Sunday night.
Can Trump Reverse His Fortune? On paper, it’s a bad setup for Trump. He draws energy off large-scale rallies rather than more intimate gatherings (one reason why he struggled in the first debate). And he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Then again, maybe there’s an advantage in having such a low bar to clear.
Trump’s debate prep – or a lack thereof – was a big storyline coming out of Round One in Hofstra. He denied a connection, but Trump did participate in a town hall setting in New Hampshire on Thursday. It was a good walk-through for Sunday, even if Trump insisted it wasn’t a dress rehearsal.
Trump reportedly has spent more time with his campaign’s inner circle preparing for Round Two. Perhaps he’ll be better in command of his talking points and more eloquent in defense of his record.
That leaves the question of temperament.
Asking Trump to be like Mike (Pence): calm, dignified, polished? Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Trump gotta be Trump.
Problem is: not enough Republicans are lovin’ dat man.
Does Clinton Sit On Her Wealth? She was the consensus winner in the first debate, received a slight poll bounce and now leads this race.
So what does Hillary Clinton do on Sunday night? Play defense again by making the 90 minutes all about Trump’s foibles – what she did in Round One and her running mate, Tim Kaine, continued in his debate turn?
Or does Clinton be sold bold as to talk policy beyond her usual clichés and hackneyed rhetoric?
According to the latest YouGov/Economist survey, Clinton made up a 13-point enthusiasm gap among her Democratic base. Others numbers that bode well for her: Clinton’s favorable/unfavorable has improved (it’s now 45%/53%); a majority of voters see her as the more presidential of the two and more likely to win in November.
Now, a problem: it’s still only a three-point lead (43%-40%). The vaunted gender gap that worked so well in 2012 for President Obama – he won the women’s vote by 12% but lost the male vote by 8% – is smaller in the same YouGov sample. Trump’s winning the male vote by 5% but losing women by 11%/ It’s a 16-point gap versus the 20-point margin in 2012. And that’s remarkable, considering the Clinton campaign relentless effort to market Trump as a chauvinist and beyond.
One other consideration for Clinton: avoiding smugness. She’s been cocky on the campaign trail since the first debate. It worked for Barack Obama in his meteoric rise to the presidency – Clinton isn’t so blessed.
Will The Moderators Provide An Embarrassment Of Riches? This is the only of the four national debates to feature two moderators: on Sunday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz.
Here’s a story claiming the two weren’t getting along in their debate – fighting over who got to ask what (why do I get the sense it to do with Trump?).
Raddatz was not popular in GOP circles in 2012 after moderating a vice presidential debate in which Vice President Joe Biden was at times over the top. Republicans have cared much for Cooper, the embodiment of journalistic metrosexual cool.
In theory, this is the one debate where the moderators can’t play as outsized of a role since it’s the voters get to ask half of the questions. Still, Raddatz and Cooper will have their say. At all times, they’ll control the follow-up and the flow – i.e., deciding how long Trump twists in the wind over women, or Clinton has to dwell about her past transgressions.
Slanted journalism and partisan sermonizing? If America’s lucky, it doesn’t find its way past the Sunday morning shows, into primetime.
Enjoy the debate.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.