Tonight, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are scheduled to face off in New York for the first of three debates. Millions of people are expected to watch the broadcast, which will be shown on all the major networks and streamed online — but past that, nobody has a clear idea about how this show is going to play out.
The debate is slated to start at 8 p.m. and will last 90 minutes. Back in 1980 when Ronald Reagan squared off against Jimmy Carter for a single presidential debate, 80.6 million people gathered in front of their TVs to watch, a record-setting audience. Those in the know are expecting tonight's debate to easily shatter that record, with polls and various news outlets predicting 100 million viewers will tune in, according to the Hill. (The 100 million-viewer mark is an audience size usually reserved for the M*A*S*H finale and Super Bowls.)
It will be moderated by NBC's Lester Holt, the anchor of "NBC Nightly News" since last year, and a registered Republican. Holt is pretty well respected, but he's got a lot to make up for in the aftermath of Matt Lauer's embarrassingly weak recent handling of Trump.
Holt is running the debate himself, sans the support of the NBC News team — moderators are required to be more or less on their own for these debates — and there's no telling what exactly he'll focus his questions on. The debate themes are "America's Direction, Achieving Prosperity, (and) Securing America," which leaves him enough room to essentially do whatever he wants with the topics and queries he lobs at the two candidates.
All of this brings us to the real crux of the matter — nobody knows what's going to happen on that stage at Hofstra University tonight.
Clinton has reportedly been studying and practicing hard in the days leading up to the debate. She's known to be a formidable debater so if she brings her best game and balances those undeniable chops with a little personality she may well wipe the floor with Trump. On the other hand, Trump's camp has claimed he's barely studied at all — this is a part of the art of lowering expectations — but in reality he too has been practicing to make a good showing at this first debate.
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It's impossible to tell which version of Trump will actually take the stage tonight, whether it will be the reality TV star, the let-me-prove-I'm-presidential Trump or the "loose cannon" who does not seem directly able to control what comes out of his mouth and talks about his genitalia on national TV. Trump's campaign and his supporters are likely praying the presidential iteration of Trump shows up on stage tonight.
Meanwhile, Clinton needs to show viewers that she can both trounce Trump in the ring and come off as plausibly relatable and, well, human. She has trouble with this — to the point that Trump is doing better than anyone would have bet at this time last year — and she'll need to do a good job of being believable if she wants to really score a win for her campaign.
Clinton and Trump are currently in a dead heat in the polls over the weekend, according to the Washington Post, so these debates are a chance for both sides to win the support that could be crucial to the respective campaigns.
The first debate may not decide the election, but considering both candidates are fighting for a toe-hold and a chance to firmly gain the upper hand against the other, it very well could. We'll soon know what a debate between Trump and Clinton really looks like, whether it turns out to be as cordial as high tea or as wild as a couple of monkeys flinging feces at each other in a cage. Either way, it should be one hell of a show.