The spin: Sources from Donald Trump’s campaign have begun bar-lowering gossip ahead of the presidential debate Monday. One source told Chris Hayes “off the record” that Team Trump lives in fear that the Republican nominee is so unschooled that he might just “drop trow” [sic] on stage (via Twitchy):
That’s actually “on background,” not “off the record,” and it’s trou (short for trousers). It’s either a joke, or it’s such obvious spin that it amounts to the same thing. Trump has participated in several debates already, and while he’s made missteps, flashing his rear to the cameras or his opponents hasn’t been one of them. The purpose of this spin is to set expectations low enough for the candidate to exceed them and appear to have won. All candidates try this, but I don’t believe that anyone has set the bar so low that merely remaining clothed would qualify as a victory.
The reality: Will we get a full moon on Monday? Not hardly. In fact, as Ken Vogel and Politico’s team reports, Trump and his team have taken this debate and its preparation far more seriously than most have predicted.
Donald Trump’s team has created a detailed analysis of Hillary Clinton’s debate style — including her body language and verbal tics — with the goal of helping the GOP nominee exploit weaknesses during Monday’s debate, according to three sources familiar with Trump’s preparations.
The “psychological profile,” as the analysis is being called, is based on a statistical analysis of videos from 16 years’ worth of Clinton’s debates, dating back to her 2000 campaign for Senate in New York, according to the operatives. They said it was assembled with assistance from a political data firm called Cambridge Analytica that specializes in “psychographic” modeling of voters and donors, and that Trump’s top advisers have been pleased with the results.
The advisers believe that the profile proves that Clinton has significant weaknesses and that they have identified her ‘tells’ — words, phrases or gestures she uses when she’s unsure of an answer, or is trying to deflect her way out of an uncomfortable question, according to the operatives familiar with the preparations.
For example, according to one of the sources, an operative who works with the campaign, Trump’s debate prep team believes that the profile proves that when “she doesn’t know the answer, she says this, etc.” The goal, said the operative, is to get Trump to recognize the tendencies, “so when he hears her say ‘X’ he knows what is going on, and can respond accordingly.”
That’s … rather sophisticated, no? Every speaker has their tics and predictable patterns. For instance, when Trump feels he’s laid down a particularly good applause line, he’ll turn 90 degrees to the right for a moment. That’s not a particularly useful tell, but there almost certainly are others. Team Hillary might be doing the same kind of research now, although Trump seems far less predictable than Hillary.
That may be the conundrum. The key to making this strategy a success is whether Trump can maintain enough discipline and awareness on stage to take advantage of this knowledge. His natural inclination is to stay extemporaneous, so he has that flexibility, but that ad-libbing can lead Trump down rabbit holes and take him off the path, too.
However, he has become significantly more disciplined over the last several weeks and has employed better tactics and strategy — especially after Hillary’s collapse in New York. The primary version of Donald Trump would have found ways to step all over that news cycle, but the September version of the candidate kept the focus on Hillary. He’s improving, and that may be one reason why the polling has reverted back to a close race.
As I wrote in my column yesterday for The Fiscal Times, this is a winnable debate for Trump, but discipline is the key to that success:
Thanks to expectations set by the Clinton campaign, Trump can easily gain the advantage by adopting the stage presence of a thoughtful statesman. It sounds trite, but Clinton is so unliked and distrusted by voters that Trump could gain the edge just by making himself appear to be a rational alternative. That will take a lot of discipline for Trump to maintain, and no small amount of cramming on policy to at least sound schooled on the broad strokes, but it’s an achievable goal.
That just accounts for the defense in the debate. Trump likes to go on offense, sometimes so eager that he ends up damaging his own cause, but Clinton gives Trump plenty of targets on which to focus. She will undoubtedly emphasize her own experience and point to Trump’s own lack of preparation for the job.
Trump has to refocus that argument on the Clinton establishment and the corruption between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation – such as the discovery by the Washington Examiner that nearly 40 percent of State Department appointments to advisory boards went to foundation donors. Anti-establishment fervor drove the 2016 primary cycle and remains a potent force, and only Trump has an opening to define the election on those populist terms. …
All of this advice is predicated on Trump’s sense of discipline and preparation, and that’s based on his improved performance on the campaign trail since mid-August. Will he succeed in sticking to a strategy and win the debate? To parallel Silver, the Trump from six weeks ago might have had a one-in-ten shot, but the Trump – and Clinton – of late make it almost a 50:50 proposition.
The preparation seems to be exceeding expectations. Let’s see if the same will be true of the discipline on stage.