Skip to main content
ABC News
What The Heck Does ‘Winning’ A Debate Even Mean?

In this week’s politics chat, we preview the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, scheduled for Monday. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): This is our last weekly politics chat before the first presidential debate, so Tuesday’s question for your consideration is: Who will win the first presidential debate? We obviously can’t answer this, but it’s a useful frame to talk about each candidate’s strategies and strengths and weaknesses.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Television executives will win the first debate.

micah: That seems very likely. To get us going, let’s talk about how “winning” or “losing” a debate tends to manifest itself in the polls. How much can debates move the needle? (Or, at least, how much have they moved the needle historically?)

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): By recent standards, a 3 or 4 percentage point shift in the polls — which might be more of a “bounce” than something permanent, i.e., it could recede — would be on the high end.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): The most obvious example of a debate truly moving the needle is in 1980. Independent candidate John Anderson put in a poor performance in the first debate against Ronald Reagan (without Jimmy Carter), and fell in the polls. Then Carter did the same against Reagan in the second debate, right before the election, and fell too.

clare.malone: Are debate bounces like convention bounces? Do they fade? (Like a cool haircut or chemical love.)

natesilver: They can, certainly. Mitt Romney’s did in 2012.

Also, there might be a tendency for the media to declare whoever “won” the first debate to have “lost” the second or third debate.

clare.malone: Is there anyone who just killed it at their debate, got a bounce and never looked back? I.e., someone for whom winning the debate was clutch?

harry: Reagan never looked back in 1980, but that final debate was right before the election. This year the debates are further away from Election Day, especially the first one, obviously.

A lot of folks also say that the second Reagan vs. Walter Mondale debate in 1984 was the moment when Mondale knew he was done for.

clare.malone: Why so? Please historicize.

natesilver: Wait, are we pretending that 1984 was close?

harry: No no.

clare.malone: I’m wondering what the theatrics of the debate were that you think did him in? Or showed him that he was done in.

harry: I was just saying Mondale knew he was screwed after the moment Reagan said, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

clare.malone: (I’m sorely behind in my finishing both “The Sopranos” and the 1984 debates.)

micah: They end the same way.

clare.malone: Ambiguously???

micah: Tony is Mondale.

clare.malone: Tony is all of us, Micah.

micah: I’m more of a Meadow.

harry: I think Reagan did so well in 1980 for two reasons. The first is that people saw Reagan on the stage with the incumbent president, Carter, and thought he looked presidential. Meanwhile, Carter looked tired. But really it was about convincing folks that Reagan was a suitable person for the office given that Carter’s approval rating was terrible.

As for 1984, Reagan was already well ahead, but humor always sells in debates and Reagan was great at it. Reagan addressed the concern that he was old and out of touch. For the record, I’m Tony Soprano.

micah: OK, so let’s talk about the Trump vs. Clinton debate. Clinton first. Any educated guesses on her strategy for the first debate?

clare.malone: I’ve said this before, but I think there’s no way these debates aren’t a big plus for her. I think she’s just going to be finding ways to lay out her expertise in a way that’s not too didactic and wonky, and she’s going to be using the “Trump is not fit for office” thing over and over.

I would think, though, that she would avoid the “deplorables” stuff, but she’ll for sure bring up David Duke and his merry men.

natesilver: Couldn’t one way that the debates aren’t a big plus for Clinton be that the media coverage assumes that the debates will be a big plus for her and so judges things on a curve?

harry: Well, of course.

clare.malone: But there could also be a course-correction by media outlets following the criticism of Matt Lauer for taking it easy on Trump.

harry: Then again, the media trashed Trump after many of the GOP primary debates. We tend not to remember that because Trump ended up winning the nomination.

natesilver: I’m not sure that we can predict very much about how the media will score the debate based on how they judged the primary ones. The impulse to grade on a curve is very strong in a general election setting, especially if we start hearing phrases such as “beat expectations.”

clare.malone: I think that it’s likely that a lot of people in the press will be taking some deep breaths and thinking things through right before the debate, planning out how they’ll approach Trump falsehoods, should they occur, etc. Maybe paying more attention to substantive points of fact than his getting in one liners.

This is my hope.

micah: Clare, you can never go wrong underestimating the media.

clare.malone: This is my heavy hint.

micah: What will Trump’s strategy be? (Then we’ll talk more about the media.)

harry: I don’t know if Trump will have a strategy.

clare.malone: OK, so, let’s start with this: Do we think he’s going to employ his primary “counterpunching” strategy? Or is this where his new team’s brainpower will show? (I lean towards the latter.)

Predictit has a lot of side markets about whether or not he’ll use the term “crooked Hillary” in the first debate, and by a lot, I mean one.

harry: I think if she gets under his skin, then he’ll say something he’ll regret. His strategy has to be to not to lose his temper.

micah: Yeah, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Trump’s goal will be to be as normal as possible. Leave aside whether he can accomplish that, is that the right goal?

Or is it more important he put Clinton on the defensive?

And make this race “about” her?

harry: Ooooh, this is very interesting. The more this election is about Trump, the better for Clinton, and vice versa. The danger for Trump is going on the offensive too much risks making the race about him again — it’s a fine line. The goal here is to make the other candidate look bad, without also making yourself look bad. But I do think that’s the goal more than making yourself look that good.

natesilver: Well, if that’s Clinton’s strategy, maybe she’s making a mistake? Right now, she’s doing a great job of making Trump look bad and not a very good job of selling her case to the voters. You could argue the same is true for Trump.

clare.malone: I think in an ideal world, he puts her on her heels about things like her “belief that she is above rules,” etc., etc. Talks about emails — which people love to hate. But I also think that something the Clinton team is surely working on, has devoted a team of psychologists to, is finding points to anger Trump, to throw him off his normalcy routine.

natesilver: Trump definitely has the element of unpredictability working in his favor … you basically have to prepare for two-three different types of Trumps.

harry: See, I’m not sure I agree, Nathaniel. I think Clinton’s biggest problem came when the race became about her over the last few weeks, and Clinton is going to be more prepared for this debate than I am for a big snowstorm. If she loses it, Trump did something very right.

clare.malone: Yeah, I do think there is some proof that Americans don’t personally like Clinton all that much — an argument against her talking too, too much about herself — but they have tended to dislike Trump more, all other things equal in the race, so it would be best from her end to draw attention to his lack of qualification, vacuous, misleading policy ideas, etc., etc., etc.

natesilver: I disagree with your disagreement, Harold. There are LOTS of voters in the camp who find Trump totally unacceptable but aren’t convinced by Clinton, either. And a lot of them, right now, are showing up as Gary Johnson or Jill Stein voters — or they’re being filtered out by likely voter screens because of their low enthusiasm.

Furthermore, Clinton has plenty of opportunities to attack Trump. The media will always amplify attacks. It’s much harder for her to make the case for herself, in a sustained way. The debates and the convention are the best opportunities.

micah: So, to be clear, Harry thinks Clinton should spend the bulk of her time attacking Trump, Nate thinks she should focus on making her own case, and Clare?

clare.malone: I think Clinton has overplayed her hand on Trump criticism a lot, rhetorically. I think what she said about a lot of Trump supporters being basically motivated by racial animus was true, but it doesn’t play well with the public — it looks a bit condescending and can easily be skewed by slanted media outlets to read as “Hillary Clinton thinks half of all Republicans are racist.” So, what she has right now is a Goldilocks problem — her take was too hot before, she can be too cool sometimes; in the debates, she needs to strike her Trump criticism just right. Let’s recall from the convention show that she put on that she really wants to create a permission space for a certain kind of Republican to come on board with her.

natesilver: Clare, we’re making a good tag team — just like at the trivia contest last night when we kicked Harry’s ass.

clare.malone: Whoo! I did nothing on that trivia. Know what I’m killer on, though? Regular old Trivial Pursuit. It is a Malone family pursuit.

micah: Hmm … Harry, I hate to say it, but I’m with Clare and Nate….

natesilver: 👍

micah: The media/moderators will do some of the work attacking Trump, but they won’t build up Clinton.

natesilver: U-S-A. U-S-A.

harry: Well, then we should change the name of the site from FiveThirtyEight to the three putzes.

clare.malone: Tough Tuesday for Enten.


micah: Stage note for readers at home: Harry is slumping further and further down in his seat. We’ve beaten the fight out of him. Now he’s taken refuge in his “safe space” — old youtube clips.

clare.malone: I will say, as a side note, that Harry once got me down a Youtube hole of old Mike Wallace interviews, which were a treat. I would suggest everyone google “Mike Wallace, Barbra Streisand.” End side note.

harry: I enjoy my colleagues, and I enjoy a good ribbing.

micah: OK, let’s talk media now. In terms of the effect on the polls, how much influence does the media have versus the actual substance of the debate/performance of the candidates?

harry: I mean, you can give a person some heart medicine to make them perk up, but if that person is dead it ain’t gonna help.

clare.malone: There is definitely the sense that the media can mediate (!) the experience of viewers after the thing has happened. I might be sitting at home in North Carolina, watching the program and think one thing, and then the guy with a tie and “expertise” might come on right after it’s over and say with great gusto that one person or another has done something radical and race-changing that I never even considered. I often think of a great art museum in Boston when I think of these debates re: media mediation of the outcome — Isabella Stewart Gardner

, a wealthy woman way back, arranged for her home to be turned into a museum when she died but left express instructions that there be no captions on any of the pieces of art, so that visitors would only have their own senses and minds with them when they looked at everything. She didn’t want scholars ruining it for them; she wanted the experience to be pure. There’s something to that….

natesilver: The empirical evidence suggests that the post-debate spin matters a lot, although there’s a question about how much the spin matches the reality, or not.

harry: You want an example of the media framing a debate. This. People thought Al Gore won the first debate in 2000, but it was George W. Bush who gained in the polls afterward. If you don’t remember, the media blasted Gore.

natesilver: We’re also in a different media environment than we were in 2000, though.

In 2012, the social media consensus very quickly became that Obama blew it in the first debate. This year, you could have a case where, like, The New York Times’s lead article implies that Trump “beat expectations” and “raised doubts” about Clinton, but twitter might be saying something wholly different, and the CNN panel afterward might be saying a third thing.

clare.malone: Yeah, Twitter is like quick-drying plaster rather than concrete that sets overnight when it comes to perceptions of who’s won and who’s lost.

micah: So is this all reason not to put too much stock in those “instant polls” that tend to get released right after the debate about who won?

natesilver: Well, yes and no. I actually wish the pundits avoided jumping to conclusions and let the instant polls do more of the work.

clare.malone: Wait, what would be best for democracy? In an ideal world, would the media hold off discussing the debates until the next day? Would that make any kind of change? I.e., put in some kind of tracking poll and see how people actually feel, then report it?

natesilver: If I ran the Council on Presidential Debates, in fact, I’d mandate a “cooling off” period when pundits aren’t allowed to talk about the debate for the first 30 minutes after it happens.

harry: Right, and if I were president, I’d demand whole wheat pasta on every corner.

clare.malone: That, of course, takes away some very necessary responsibilities that the media has in these instances, i.e., FACT CHECKING in real time. If Trump/Clinton tells a big lie during the debate, a lie that might be something viewers won’t necessarily know about off the bat, we need reporters/outlets telling people what’s what.

micah: Last point: Neither Johnson nor Stein made it into the debates. What effect will that have on Clinton and/or Trump? And are Johnson and Stein’s gooses cooked?

natesilver: Cooked or baked?

harry: I think it helps Clinton. She has been losing voters to them, and this can help focus the race on just her versus Trump.

micah: Interesting, so Johnson and Stein’s loss may be Clinton’s gain?

natesilver: I mean, it’s not great news for them, obviously. Maybe we need a scenario where we split the difference, and the threshold for getting into the first debate is like 10 percent instead of 15 percent, and it rises to 20 percent as the campaign goes along?

clare.malone: I don’t know. I think that people might still trend towards them if they’re not inclined to like Clinton/Trump, at least for a little while.

natesilver: Yeah, the thing is, Johnson and Stein are serving more as “none of the above” votes for a lot of voters anyway. I’m not sure that people are necessarily on board with their platforms.

clare.malone: Right.

natesilver: But it’s certainly a missed opportunity. Or a denied opportunity, is maybe the better way to put it.

clare.malone: I think they should be in the debates, if only so the American people are more informed about who they are placing their protest vote with.

harry: Johnson is getting a lot of votes from younger voters like Bernie Sanders did. I get the feeling that ideology isn’t their chief concern.

clare.malone: It’s a “fuck the system” vote, which is perfectly valid way to vote any year, and is perhaps more en vogue this year than ever before.

micah: Final thoughts?

harry: We’ll be live blogging these debates, and if you don’t follow us you don’t deserve to eat dinner.

clare.malone: What impact will Brangelina’s breakup have on the race, if any?

micah: Let’s let readers answer that one.

FiveThirtyEight: Election Update – Sept. 21, 2016

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

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.