It All Comes Down to This
So here we are, just hours away from the third and final presidential debate. It is safe to say that the 2016 debate cycle as a whole has been the greatest one in American history. From the pure chaos of the Republican primary debates, which had to be split into two tiers because there were so many candidates, to the back-and-forth debates between Hillary and Bernie on the Democratic side, to the interrupt-fest that was the vice-presidential debate, to the absolute fireworks show that was the second general election debate, it all comes down to this.
For more factual evidence of these debates’ significance, look no further than the ratings that all of these debates have drawn, both individually and collectively. On the Republican side, the first of the primary debates, from Fox News on August 6, 2015, drew 24 million viewers and broke the record for the highest-rated presidential primary debate ever, from either party. The second GOP debate, from CNN on September 16, drew 23 million, and thus was the second-highest-rated primary debate of all time. All 12 of the debates collectively totaled 186.1 million views.
On the Democratic side, the first debate (the only one to feature the three “also-rans” alongside Hillary and Bernie), from CNN on October 13, 2015, drew 15.8 million viewers, and thus broke the record for the highest-rated Democratic primary debate ever. All 9 debates total collectively amassed 71.8 million views.
And lastly, in the general election, the first of the three debates, on September 26, 2016, totaled 84 million viewers across all of the 13 channels that carried it, thus breaking the record for the highest-rated presidential debate of all time. Factoring in roughly two million live viewers on YouTube, eight million live viewers on Facebook, and 1.4 million live viewers on CBS’s streaming service, its grand and final total is roughly 95.4 million. The second debate, on October 9 (a Sunday night, of all things), drew in 66.5 million viewers across 11 channels, thus ranking as the 4th-highest-rated presidential debate of all time (behind the first 2012 debate, the sole 1980 debate, and the aforementioned first 2016 debate). This upcoming third debate will likely land in the same ballpark, which means that all three debates combined will collectively total at least 200 million viewers.
With less than 20 days to go, this third and final debate could be one of the most significant factors in deciding the votes of millions of Americans who still haven’t chosen their candidate yet.
First, one thing that everyone needs to know going into this debate: This debate will be the first general election debate ever to be moderated by an anchor from Fox News, Chris Wallace – host of Fox News Sunday and son of the legendary CBS anchor from 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace.
To be clear, Chris Wallace is no Sean Hannity. He is a registered Democrat, and indeed has some of the more liberal opinions out of all the Fox News hosts, more along the lines of former On the Record host Greta Van Susteren, rather than a more right-leaning host like Bill O’Reilly. But this won’t stop the general media narrative that will portray him as a right-winger anyway, and this will be done specifically because he is going to be tough on both candidates equally. Don’t be at all surprised if he asks Hillary Clinton tough and direct questions on anything from the emails to Benghazi. Even if he equally grills Trump on the recent allegations and the leaked tape, the media will still froth at the mouth afterwards and decry Wallace for being “unfair” to Clinton. But Wallace is a professional and likely won’t care anyway.
This is key, because with such a genuinely unbiased and actually somewhat fair anchor moderating the debate, Clinton will have nowhere to hide. She won’t have Lester Holt, Anderson Cooper, and Martha Raddatz openly debating Trump for her, or silencing the audience when they applaud for Trump’s buzz phrases. She may even pull the Trump card herself of calling out Wallace for supposed “bias” if he asks her a difficult question, although Wallace won’t take any of that nonsense and will press her on such issues. This couldn’t be more important, again, with this being the final debate. It could have a lasting impact on voters when it is revealed just how Hillary reacts to being asked genuinely tough questions in an unfriendly environment.
Next, expect Trump to double down on everything. The last debate should, by no means, be the only one of its kind. Trump will likely ramp up the direct attacks on Clinton, but will probably try to diversify exactly what he attacks her on. I think he will be likely to go after her stances on borders, immigration, and refugees, in order to tie it all back to one of the core issues that has been the backbone of his campaign. Notice how these topics – immigration, refugees, the wall, borders – have been conspicuously absent from the last two debates? The issues that arguably made Trump the nominee in the first place, the issues that started his campaign, somehow completely left out by the last three moderators? Trump will ensure that this changes, and he’d be wise to bring up Clinton’s leaked Wall Street speech where she said that she “dreams of a hemispheric market with open borders.” He should drive this point home as proof of not only her two-faced hypocrisy, as evident by her “public and private stance” line, but also how she has a complete disregard for American sovereignty, economic security, and law and order. Trump will finally bring the debate back to the core issues of American sovereignty, enforcement of borders, and the flow of potentially dangerous refugees and illegal immigrants, all of which has collectively earned him the support of so many working-class, blue-collar, low-educated white voters, who could possibly be the key to Trump winning the White House in November.
Don’t be surprised if Hillary continues to rail against Trump over the allegations and the leaked tape. The one major mistake Trump made in the second debate was not adequately defending himself on the comments in the tape, and hastily shifting the subject over to ISIS and other issues. Although Trump has made it clear that he has no intention of remaining on defense, it would greatly benefit him to provide at least a better defense on this subject. I do expect him to more vigorously respond to the rise of allegations, many of which have already been proven false. Going down the line case-by-case would be a bad move and put Trump exactly where Clinton wants him to be, but I still expect him to make a broad declaration that not only have many of these been proven false (such as through conflicting witness testimony, unreliability of some of the individual women, and exposed connections between some of the women and Hillary or the Democratic Party), but also to point out that it couldn’t be more suspicious that these are just now coming out, three weeks before the election. He may even go all the way and directly accuse Clinton and the Democrats of making these allegations up and preparing to release them at such an inconvenient time, and that these may have been waiting to be used anyway regardless of who the GOP nominee was. That would definitely be bold and tripling down, but that’s exactly what Trump does.
Also, it would be a crime against himself and his campaign if Trump didn’t bring up his bombshell campaign promise that he announced just yesterday, at his rally in Colorado Springs: A Constitutional Amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress. Finally, for the first time in what feels like an eternity, a major party’s presidential nominee has made the proposal that, if it ever has been brought up in past elections, usually never makes it out of the primaries. This was a brilliant move for Trump, and could indeed win him the race. I can’t think of a single proposal that more effectively communicates itself in language so simple that even the lowest-educated voter will get it, and yet speaks massive volumes and carries historic weight with it. Whereas a policy to fix the tax code would lose most people’s attention due to being too detail-heavy, and something like “the wall” is simple and monumental, but very divisive, term limits on Congress is something that just might be universally agreed upon. It also could not fit more perfectly into Trump’s message that he is against the establishment, on both sides of the aisle, and that his campaign is essentially a war against the elite political class. Although his promise at the rally is already making the rounds on social media, and reported by at least one major media outlet (Fox News), reiterating this promise at the debate will solidify its standing as perhaps one of the biggest developments of this race, so late into the game.
Lastly, I actually do believe that the recent explosive videos released by Project Veritas will be brought up at some point (whether by Trump or Wallace, I can’t tell). With WikiLeaks, it was challenging to make it sound compelling enough to the average voter because not only have there been so many leaks from this source, but also that most of the leaks are too complicated to stick like a tabloid headline (hence why the leaked tape of Trump was so effective – simplicity). But the Project Veritas leaks come from a different source, almost as a breath of fresh dirty air rather than dirty air from the same junk pile. And the message behind these leaks couldn’t be simpler: The Democrats have been hiring, training, and sending people to Trump rallies for the sole purpose of causing violence. This truly is a potentially campaign-ending revelation, and it would be, once again, a travesty if these are not referenced at some point – especially since the media is deliberately suppressing these tapes.
All in all, this debate will perhaps be among the top five most important factors in this final stretch before the election. Unless another more explosive, and simple, leak comes out from WikiLeaks or Project Veritas, this debate will be the last chance to frame all of the most recent developments in a way that will effectively stick in the voters’ minds from now until November 8.
Follow the author on Twitter @EricLendrum26