The Pressure's on Hillary Clinton at First Debate, Fair or Not

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center in Columbus, Ohio, July 31. A Republican lawmaker has decided to support the Democrat over the GOP nominee, Donald Trump. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

Donald Trump has never participated in a one-on-one presidential debate. Hillary Clinton has been in 10 of them. Yet it's Clinton, not Trump, who is under the most pressure when the two presidential candidates face off Monday night in New York. And analysts say her performance could have a real outcome on the trajectory of the race.

"As a woman, she's judged by a standard that he's not," says Northwestern University Professor Craig Lamay, who co-wrote a book on the history of the presidential debates. "If he goes up and is just Mr. Bombast, well, does anybody expect anything different?" How Clinton handles Trump is "a much bigger challenge," Lamay says, with viewers scrutinizing not just the substance of her words but her demeanor, as well. In other words, it's the expectations game on steroids.

Both campaigns have already fired salvos on that front, trying to shape the lens through which people view their candidate's performance. The Republican National Committee was particularly transparent in its aims in a memo it sent around Friday from Chief Strategist Sean Spicer asking, "Will Clinton Meet Expectations In The First Debate?" Spicer pointed out that "Clinton is a career politician who has spent years sharpening her debate reflexes and beefing up on public policy." Trump, however, "is new to the format. Aside from the primary debates...Trump's lack of formal, political, one-on-one debate experience gives Clinton a significant advantage," he argues.

The Clinton campaign tried to push back on that narrative in a conference call with reporters it hosted Friday afternoon, complaining that the press has set lower expectations for Trump. "Getting through a debate while maintaining your demeanor and not becoming unhinged should not be the standard," argued Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri. She pleaded with the press to call Trump out for his consistent falsehoods. "Any candidate who tells this many lies clearly can't win the debate on the merits," she insisted.

Palmieri also urged the moderators—Lester Holt of NBC in the first debate, followed by Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC in the second and Chris Wallace of Fox News in the third—to be proactive referees. They must be "willing to stand up and to challenge lies," she said. "To not do that is to give Donald Trump a very unfair advantage."

GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will debate for the first time Monday night. Reuters

The role of the debate moderator has, in and of itself, become a hotly debated subject in the wake of Matt Lauer's much maligned performance at the Commander in Chief forum in New York on Sept. 8, where he interviewed Clinton and Trump, back-to-back. And it's a sore spot for Republicans going back to 2012, when CNN's Candy Crowley fact-checked Mitt Romney's claim that President Obama had not immediately called the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi an "act of terror." It was an awkward moment for Romney, and a triumphant one for the president.

Trump, not surprisingly, has argued that moderators should not weigh in on the accuracy of candidates' claims. "You're debating somebody, and if she makes a mistake, or if I make a mistake, we'll take each other on," Trump said in a Fox News interview on Thursday. "But I certainly don't think you want Candy Crowley again." Wallace has said he has no plans to. But it remains to be seen how Holt, host of NBC Nightly News, handles his turn in the hot seat Monday night. "A lot of Republicans really felt that there was another opportunity where the press is biased against Republicans," says Levesque. "I think that for any of these three … debates, if you're the chosen moderator, your career now is on the line."

Televised presidential debates haven't been around all that long. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon famously held the first televised debate in 1960, and according to political lore, it's the reason Nixon lost. It certainly didn't help his cause that Kennedy proved magnetic on television, and made the sitting vice president, only four years older, appear a generation older. It was only after the Federal Communications Commission revised its interpretation of the equal airtime law in 1975 that the debates became a regular feature of the general election.

For the first few decades, political scientists maintained that the presidential debates had little real impact on the outcome of the election. Their research suggested that while they did reinforce voters' existing preferences, they rarely caused them to change their mind. But a growing body of research has suggested that debates can cause voters' support to shift, particularly those with only limited knowledge of the campaign going into the debate.

As media coverage has intensified to feed a 24-hour news cycle, the hype of these face-offs has become, to a large degree, reality. The debates now drive news coverage well beyond the 24 hours before and after the event, itself. Given Trump's unpredictable, made-for-TV candidacy, the attention is even more intense. Viewership on Monday night is expected to be historic. The debates are "going to be foundation for news coverage of the campaign until the election," predicts Lamay.

Levesque agrees. "With the election so close and tightening this debate on Monday … is really going to be a pivot point for the presidential election."