In the middle of August, it looked as though the first presidential debate, to be held on Monday at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, would be Donald Trump’s last chance to rescue his failing campaign with a dramatic surprise attack on Hillary Clinton.
Since then, however, Trump has mounted a comeback, and now leads in several swing states, with a path to 270 Electoral College votes and victory. Now, the first debate looks like Clinton’s last chance to stop the Trump surge.
And she is likely to do so.
Trump fans, brace yourselves: Hillary Clinton will win the first presidential debate. She will not do enough to put away the Republican nominee, but she will stop his momentum and force him to work that much harder to win.
There are several reasons Clinton will win. Ironically, one of them is her fragile health.
Winning debates is all about beating expectations. And expectations for Trump are very low. Until recently, it seemed that all he would have to do to win is avoid major gaffes, and keep his cool.
But now, expectations for Clinton are even lower. Her collapse on September 11 has led to wild speculation that she might not be able to make it through 90 minutes. If she merely stays upright, she beats expectations.
(The Commission on Presidential Debates confirmed to Breitbart News Thursday that the candidates will be standing for the first debate. If they were seated, Clinton would have more energy but lose the strategic benefit of diminished expectations.)
Even without low expectations, Clinton should win the first debate, for two reasons.
The first is that she is the most seasoned debater in American political life today. Clinton does not have any real achievements to boast after eight years as First Lady, another eight years in the Senate, four years as Secretary of State, and two presidential campaigns. But years of debating — and years of evading questions — have helped her develop a polished, if uninspiring, public persona that conveys competence.
Clinton has two main debating tricks. One is to deploy distracting but serious-sounding details whenever she is faced with a question she does not want to answer. The other is to laugh at uncomfortable moments. Her laugh — a “cackle,” to her critics — is awkward but disarming, humanizing.
She has weaknesses, too: she sometimes misreads her audience, as she did by using the term “slum lord” to attack then-Sen. Barack Obama for his Chicago cronies in 2008. But her tactics are usually effective.
The second reason that Clinton should win is that while Trump is a great persuader, and an entertaining speaker, he is a poor debater. For one thing, he is too quick to take offense at tough questions or jabs from opponents. The celebrated clash with Megyn Kelly in the first primary debate last year was entirely avoidable, and cost him female support. Trump also sometimes stumbles on policy questions beyond his core issues. He often forgets his own past statements and misstates his own views.
It is telling that while Trump successfully used the Republican primary debates to pick off his opponents one-by-one with a series of well-crafted “kill shots” — “low-energy” Jeb Bush, “little” Marco Rubio, “lyin'” Ted Cruz, Carly “look at that face” Fiorina — he won very few of the debates, online polls notwithstanding. If the moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, decides to play “fact-checker” against Trump — something Trump is clearly concerned about — Trump is probably going to suffer most.
But there is one larger reason that Clinton will win the first debate: the media will tell everyone she has won, regardless.
They are openly hostile to Trump, they know Clinton needs help, and they want to make up for Matt Lauer and Jimmy Fallon, who committed the grave sin of being fair to both.
With legions of faux fact-checkers, and battalions of biased pundits, the fix is in. Clinton will enjoy a bump in the polls– and Trump will have to claw his way back in the weeks and debates that follow.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.