Clinton vs. Trump: Clashing debate-prep styles hint at sharp contrasts on stage

Tonight’s first U.S. presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a study in personality clashes. It’s also a test of two opposing preparation strategies, one of which may not involve much prep at all.

Trump, the go-with-his-gut billionaire Republican with a knack for one-liners, faces off at 9 p.m. ET against Clinton, the Democratic former secretary of state with an unmatched political record and all the undesired baggage.

The FiveThirtyEight blog’s political team, referencing The Simpsons, described it as a “Bart Simpson versus Lisa Simpson” scenario — a showdown between a freewheeling arch-provocateur and a political keener presenting herself as a moral centre but nevertheless struggling with unpopularity.

Both candidates share popularity woes (55 per cent unfavourablity for Clinton; 59 per cent for Trump, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll).

Meanwhile, their debate-prep styles could scarcely be more different.

Clinton is doing her homework about her wild-card opponent, her aides told the New York Times. She reportedly spends hours studying Trump’s style, takes notes from opposition research memos and watches highlight reels.

Cheeseburger prep sessions

Trump’s camp is soliciting friends for help, emailing surveys that ask supporters, in one example, whether they want him to taunt Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” on stage.

The Republican nominee’s debate prep has involved Sunday meet-ups at a Trump golf course in New Jersey over cheeseburgers and soda, according to the Washington Post, with confidantes such as ousted Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and conservative radio firebrand Laura Ingraham spitballing zingers.

Trump golf course Turnberry

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, shown at one of his golf courses in Scotland, has reportedly been meeting advisers at a New Jersey golf course to test zingers and debate ideas for his debate against Hillary Clinton. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

It’s unconventional compared to the classical approach involving full-dress mock debates and analyses of what makes an opponent tick. Trump has reportedly resisted reading briefing materials and sparring against Ingraham as a Clinton stand-in.

Such lack of interest could be to his peril, warns Ted Kaufman, the Democratic strategist and former Delaware senator who oversaw mock debates for Vice-President Joe Biden in 2008 and 2012.

Watch the debate live on and CBC News Network at 9 pm. ET. Follow along with our live blog. 

“This is another test of the Trump approach, which is pretty much not a whole lot of briefing books and Teleprompters and preparation,” Kaufman says, adding that the American electorate is “more concerned about substance than zingers.”

Trump says his more lax approach is about authenticity.


Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, shown during an April debate during the Democratic primaries, has stood on a debate stage more than 40 times during her political career. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

“I believe you can prep too much for these things,” he told the Times, reasoning that he doesn’t want to sound scripted.

Clinton leads Trump by just 2.5 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

Her challenge is preparing for the unpredictability of a populist candidate whose disdain for political correctness won over enough conservatives to vault him to the Republican nomination. Another challenge? To find a debating partner unafraid to spout lacerating insults to her in warm-ups.

“I am running against someone who will say or do anything,” Clinton said at a fundraiser in East Hampton, N.Y.  “And who knows what that might be?”

‘Multiple’ Trumps

The identity of Clinton’s Trump stand-in remains a secret, although billionaire reality TV star Mark Cuban has offered to take the Trump role, a proposal endorsed by Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor of the e-book Debating Trump.


Billionaire businessman and reality TV star Mark Cuban was rumoured to be considered as a possible stand-in for Donald Trump during mock debates to prepare Hillary Clinton. Cuban, who has endorsed Clinton, has denied the reports. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Kall says Clinton must brace for “at least two versions” of Trump: A “cantankerous Trump” from the Republican primaries who counterpunched with name-calling, and a more staid “presidential Trump” previewed during his last Republican debate in Miami.

“A third scenario is a Jekyll and Hyde,” he says, suggesting Clinton might benefit from practising with “multiple Trump stand-ins.”

Tonight’s debate moderated by NBC’s Lester Holt is expected to be the most widely watched in history, with estimates it could attract 100 million viewers. It will also be the first of either candidate’s debate performances to be viewed by many Americans, and an opportunity for Trump to present himself as presidential.

Clinton, who argues Trump lacks the temperament to be president, now has a wider stage to remind voters about his embrace by white supremacists, praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump University scam charges, lies about promoting the “birther” conspiracy theory and reports he used $258,000 from his charity to settle his own legal woes.

Exploiting emails, Benghazi response

Trump will need to avoid falling into a trap or “losing his cool” if Clinton prods him on possible insecurities about his intelligence or business failures, or if she brings up his son’s sharing of white-supremacist online memes, Kall says.

“She’s going to try to get to him, to attack him personally, and any time family members get involved, he might get defensive,” Kall says.


Ted Kaufman, former Democratic senator from Delaware, was a key member of the debate prep team that coached Vice-President Joe Biden during the 2008 debate against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and the 2012 match-up against Wisconsin Republican congressman Paul Ryan. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Kall expects Trump will try to unnerve Clinton by reminding voters about her “basket of deplorables” remark disparaging his supporters, or insinuate influence-peddling by foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation charity while she was secretary of state. Her improper use of private email servers for business and response to the 2012 Benghazi attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya during that time will also be hammered hard.

“Trump is going to try to get Hillary to make excuses and sound defensive.”

Clinton’s seasoned team of debate preppers has built a psychological profile to help her get under Trump’s skin, as well as steel herself against potentially cutting personal digs about her husband Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs, the Times reports.

‘Trigger points’

Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s autobiography The Art of the Deal, is reportedly consulting on “trigger points” to fluster Trump.

Kaufman, who coached Biden for the 2008 debates, can think of no better comparison for Clinton versus Trump than the vice-president’s faceoff against another unconventional debater, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.


U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden attacks Republican Alaska Governor Sarah Palin at a 2008 debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

“She was not very knowledgeable about the federal government or had the kind of depth of issues that most presidents and vice-presidential candidates have on domestic and foreign policy questions.”

So Palin’s stand-in, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, aimed to draw Biden into “mansplaining” or talking down to her.

Granholm, wearing glasses and affecting Palin’s accent, would goad Biden into “talking in acronyms and using Washington-speak,” she told Slate, adding that Trump, even if unrehearsed, should not be underestimated.

“You’ve got to recognize and respect the fact that he won all these primaries, and didn’t win them for nothing.”

Tonight’s 90-minute debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., will be divided into six segments of about 15 minutes each on major topics. Each candidate will have two minutes to respond to a question, then debate the opponent in a deeper discussion.

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