A presidential debate like none other

David Shribman

Throw away your images of presidential debates: The earnest exchanges over foreign policy and the economy, the canned laugh lines and scripted expressions of scorn, even the choreographed bonhomie at the beginning and end of these televised sessions.

Monday night’s confrontation will reflect the disruptive forces in politics that each nominee personifies.

As a former first lady, senator, and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton presents a different kind of profile than anything Americans have seen since presidential debates began in 1960.

As an insurgent with no political experience and a freewheeling style, Donald Trump eschews preparation but comes armed with the sort of zingers that have no precedent in the 30 presidential debates that have set expectations for these affairs.

One of the candidates will prepare feverishly, the other will not. One risks sounding scripted in an event that prizes spontaneity, the other risks sounding casual in an event that tests his presidential demeanor. One could err by allowing her rival to dominate the session the way he did against his Republican rivals, the other could err by appearing domineering or patronizing to a woman.

And both could err by seeming inauthentic — too deliberately informal for her, too artificial and stilted for him. “You have to be yourself — and that’s harder than you think in a presidential debate,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who played Barack Obama in mock practice debates for the last two Republican nominees, Sen. John McCain of Ohio and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. “Knowing every detail of every policy is less important than making people comfortable with you.”

A year’s worth of strategic thinking gets distilled to two hours in a presidential debate. Clinton has been preparing for weeks, Trump hardly at all — though in recent days the Manhattan businessman has sent supporters emails about “the BIGGEST night of our campaign.”

Trump has indicated he will stick with his free-wheeling debate style rather than steep himself in preparation. The difference in approach will be immediately evident Monday.

That might make a difference, arming Clinton with heaps of statistics and refined policy points that she can use to her advantage — or making her seem over-prepared for an event that is designed to reveal personality and character. Trump’s cavalier preparation might make him seem authentic — or unprepared for perhaps the most demanding job in the world.

Political scientists have found that debates seldom change minds; those who watch them are more like sports fans than undecided voters, rooting for their team and coming down afterward pretty much where they started. But the audience for these debates may be so much bigger than usual, and the candidates so much a departure from form, that historical examples may not be applicable.

“The question is whether Trump is graded on a curve,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist. “If people expect Clinton to wipe the floor with Trump and he avoids disastrous errors people may think he won.” Clinton also will be graded on a curve; if she comes out unscathed after a Trump verbal attack, people may believe she won.

“Presidential debates are the best way people can actually learn something important about the candidates,’’ former Vice President Walter Mondale said in an interview. “Most of what they hear otherwise is spin and bounce. History tells us these debates can be revealing.”

He knows this firsthand. In his second debate with President Ronald Reagan, the 73-year-old president dismissed concerns about his age with a quip about the relative youth and inexperience of Mondale, then 56. “He answered what people were worried about — whether he could still function,” Mr. Mondale said. “We realized then that the campaign was over.”

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.