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Our Live Elections Podcast Previews The First Debate

On Monday night, our elections podcast crew was joined by a full house at the PlayStation Theater in New York for a live taping in which we discussed the terror attacks in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota and how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton responded. We then previewed the first debate between Clinton and Trump, scheduled for Monday night. Farai Chideya discussed her FiveThirtyEight series, “The Voters,” and joined the latest round of obscure election trivia.

We’re experimenting with adding a transcript of a portion of the podcast here each week. Here’s some of our conversation about the upcoming first presidential debate. The transcript begins at the 25-minute mark and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jody Avirgan: So, Nate, how do you — in general — watch debates? What are you looking for? And then this one specifically.

Nate Silver: In the primaries, I’m basically just trying to make fun of people. But it’s very, very, very hard to cover general election debates, I think. You can do a little fact checking, but you talk about media bias — the media’s biases come out, and there are lots and lots of different types of media biases, but they come out profoundly in the way that debates are covered. If I were the Commissioner of Presidential Debates, I would have a moratorium where you have the debate and then show videos of kittens or something for 30 minutes afterward, and then you can let people engage with it on their own terms. Sometimes, the spin itself can matter more —

Jody: But it should still be Frank Luntz in a room full of kittens immediately after the debate.

Nate: If they want to have a kitten focus group that can dial test the cats versus dogs, they can. But first of all, you looked really smart in 2012 if you always guessed, “Oh, nothing will affect the polls.” This year, that hasn’t been such a good guess, and the reason why is pretty simple, which is that you have two or three times more effectively undecided voters than you had. You have a much bigger pool of people who really dislike both candidates. They’re not sure how to reconcile that choice, and they can either be moved back and forth authentically or they can be more or less likely to respond to polls. Again, I’m not that into that argument, because if you’re more likely to respond to a poll, you’re also more likely to vote and so therefore there’s ambiguity there for me. But there clearly is a fairly big group — whether they’re swing voters or nonvoters vs. voters, or people going back and forth between voting for third parties and voting for Clinton mostly. Again, talking about an event that would reset something to a previous equilibrium, that debate in 2012 where Obama lost a bunch of ground to Mitt Romney came at a time when he was five or six points ahead. Romney had had a very bad set of news cycles — he had the conventions, and then 47 percent, and then Benghazi, which in 2012 was thought of as some weird Romney gaffe. It was a total media pile on.

For Clinton — people are going to focus so much on Trump’s performance, but Clinton doesn’t have that much time where she is kind of out in front of people in an unfiltered way. When you had the convention and they had their kind of message, which they were able to plan for in advance, and not the ebb and flow of news events — that was a very successful event for Democrats, and so by that notion, maybe in some ways, they both have upsides. If Trump really knocked it out of the park, it might become the thing which won the election. So, the stakes are high. The third thought, though, is that whatever comes up can come down, and so you’re always trying to say, “Well, how much do you want to adjust your notion of where the race is at based on the debates?” And it can be like Romney — he did gain, in our view, three or four points, but he wound up eroding those over time. There can be a tendency to kind of say whoever won the first debate loses the second debate based on the way the media covers these events, so that makes it tricky.

Jody: So, Clare, let’s talk about this upcoming debate and what each side, as Nate set it up, has to gain and to lose. Who is this debate more about, Clinton or Trump?

Clare Malone: That’s a great question. I think it’s a hotly anticipated debate, but I think in a lot of ways the pressure is on Trump, because to me, it’s going to be very difficult in some ways for Trump to kind of come out seeming more substantive. Maybe he could come out seeming stronger — what does that mean? In a debate, sure, there’s some physical presence — how does a person handle themselves on stage? But these are going to be — I hope that it’s not going to be [Matt] Lauer-esque and that [moderator] Lester [Holt] will ask and follow up on questions. So I tend to think that Trump has more to prove in this, and I think that from the Clinton side of things, it’s going to be — and she’s sort of been pulling this line out at rallies with younger voters, where she’s sort of saying, listen, I know you have a lot of questions about me. Hopefully, she’ll have a better answer about say, the Clinton Foundation, stuff like that, and sort of both conceding that a lot of people have shades-of-gray views about her, while also, I would say, putting out the moral question of, do you want Trump in the White House?

Jody: Harry, go ahead.

Harry Enten: Well, I was just going to say, I think this debate is about the person or people who are not on the stage, and that is Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

Clare: Who paid you from the Libertarian party to say that?

Harry: The reason is, if you look, for instance, at the two-way polling between Trump and Clinton versus the four-way, you see that Clinton does better when it’s a focused choice between Trump and Clinton, and the large reason for that — or most of it, anyway — is because [of] those voters, 18-24, these younger millennials. They are overwhelmingly saying that they, despite being the group most in favor of Barack Obama’s job performance, they are the most overwhelming to say that they also want to vote for a third-party candidate. And the question to me is, when all the sudden on the main stage, those third-party candidates aren’t there and you’re given a focused choice, does that help them kind of string along and say this election really is about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the same way that in late 1980, it kind of became a choice between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter without John Anderson being there?

Clare: And joking aside, by the way, I do think that Gary Johnson at the least should be on the debate stage. I mean, Gary Johnson is a very laissez-faire, tofu candidate — “I’ll take on whatever flavor you want me to take on. I’m very conservative, let you do whatever you want with your freedom,” or “I’m the guy who, until six months ago, ran a cannabis company and I’m really chill.”

Jody: I believe that, having watched him speak.

Clare: No, he’s a smart guy, but he’s by no means a politician who is doing anything to put out specific points of view outside of “liberty is good.” He just wants people to sort of see him as the empty space.

Jody: Nate, how does Clinton deal with the low-bar conundrum with Donald Trump?

Nate: So, what’s the low bar?

Jody: If Trump goes out there and is subdued or normal and doesn’t kind of do his counterpuncher thing that he likes to do and is just kind of, let’s say, a blank slate — I’m not talking necessarily about media interpretation, I’m talking about Clinton herself, on that stage, across from Trump. How does she contend with that when it feels like she’s, over the last month or two, been really hammering away at, “He’s unstable, you can bait him,” and so forth. So, if he just stays even keel, I think it presents an actual debating problem for her, in a way.

Nate: She has to prepare for several different opponents and maybe multiple different opponents within the same debate. And Trump, by the way — people look back at primaries and they’re like, “Oh, Trump did great in the debates.” He was actually not that great in the debates. A lot of times he survived the debates. I don’t mean, like, objectively. I mean that if you look at the polling before and after, he would have this pattern for a long time where he would win a primary, get a lot of coverage out of that — like South Carolina, for example — and then have a debate midweek and be a little bit on the decline but still win. You remember, he actually, until the end, just tended to hit his polling dead on or underperform a little bit instead of really closing strongly. But I don’t know. I think she can’t get too caught up in trying to present the negative case for Trump because I think people have internalized that by now. She has to remind people of her credentials. Because she’s a woman, she has to pass a commander-in-chief test also with certain voters, and being in a presidential setting might potentially do more for her — I thought it did at the convention — than it would if it were a man. Gender is a huge dynamic in this debate that I think has gone undercovered in the election in general, but she has a lot of different things she has to accomplish. At the convention, they were able to do two or three different things at once. That’s scripted. Can you do that in an unscripted way too?

Jody: All right, quick — Harry, and then Clare.

Harry: Very quickly. I remember the first debate in the 2008 cycle — I was still in high school at the time, and I specifically asked that I get a pre AB calc test up so that I would be able to go home and watch the debate. And I remember thinking, “Oh, Bill Richardson’s going to win this debate easily. He’s so much more accomplished than the rest of them.” And then, of course, Bill Richardson had a whole thing where he couldn’t hear something, and the whole thing was a disaster. But the big thing from that debate was Hillary Clinton came out and was ready to go from the start, the first debate, and it was the same thing this year. She was ready to go from the start. I think it’s oftentimes difficult to remember that Clinton does her homework very, very well — certainly better than Donald Trump has tended to do his homework — and so it wouldn’t be shocking to me if she knows that this is on the line, “I have worked my entire life for this. I could be the first woman president of the United States.” I think part of the reason that she got ill was because she overworks herself because she feels like she has so much to prove, and rightfully so, given what other people have said. We’ll see what happens. This campaign is freaking crazy, but I’ve got a feeling.

Jody: Clare?

Clare: Yeah. I kind of don’t — I think earlier you said, what if Trump doesn’t say anything crazy? What if he just acts like a normal Republican? I think that’s a false premise because he’s not a normal Republican. He literally has no — if this is just a straight-up, straightfaced debate — watch a television interview with Trump where someone follows up on a question. He literally can’t say anything, so if you’re doing a debate on pure substance, I really think there’s no way that Clinton doesn’t do better than he does. And just to follow up on what Nate said about she has to pass a commander-in-chief test to prove to some people that’s she’s — yes, she’s a woman, but she can do the job. I keep on thinking about — and I think mostly, to be honest, they’re appealing to white suburban men, although it’s a demographic that’s maybe not as important as it used to be — but this is like a timeless thing. What was the — Queen Elizabeth, right before the Spanish armada, said, “Though I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and the stomach of a king, and a king of England.” So, that’s kind of what Hillary Clinton is doing. She’s coming on, she’s going to wear a red suit, and she’s going to be prepared. I don’t think that’s a biased thing; I think that’s just the way she rolls. And Trump — you can see it in the debate prep. Trump is taking a couple hours here and there.

Harry: And then, of course, there will be 30 minutes of people critiquing her red suit for some freaking reason — well, we know why they’re doing it — and, of course, then Trump wears the clothes that don’t actually fit and they let him go perfectly by the side.

Jody: OK, we will leave it there.

VIDEO: How will the recent attacks on NYC affect the election?

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in Apple Podcasts, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.