Expect a policy focus at tonight’s debate — with plenty of fireworks

Tonight’s third presidential debate brings America its final chance to see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton together on the same stage. Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News has announced plans to ask questions on six topics: debt and entitlements, immigration, the economy, the Supreme Court, foreign hot spots, and fitness to be president.

Wallace’s chosen topics provide some hope that the final debate will be more policy-focused than its predecessors, but given each candidate’s demonstrated ability to filibuster, pivot to talking points, or employ bizarre non sequiturs, the moderator will face a challenge in trying to address multiple issues. 

Historically, final presidential debates have focused on foreign policy or defence–resulting in a policy-heavy discussion. This year, that seems unlikely, given the previous two Trump-Clinton showdowns have largely strayed from policy into the realm of tawdry accusations and personal insults. Viewers should expect the “fitness to be president” portion of the debate to include questions about the recent Wikileaks revelations as well as Donald Trump’s alleged sexual assaults.

While we may hope this final debate will provide an opportunity for both candidates to detail policy differences, this year’s focus on personal character will likely overshadow all other concerns, as our previous analysis finds. In this season of scandal, it may be too much to ask for the debate to take a different focus.   

“There is a natural tendency to focus on that [personal behavior] which leaves less time for policy,” said political scientist John Sides. “Moderators can’t ignore big controversies. Trump wants to rebut the various accusations, and Clinton is happy to pile on. That adds up to a debate that’s sometimes as much about personality as policy.”

CJR analyzed every single question asked at a presidential debate, focusing in particular on the Trump-Clinton throwdowns. Here’s what we found:  

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Far fewer topics covered overall

Reporting from a Trump rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson spoke to a Trump supporter who said she barely knew where the candidates stood on most issues because the debates “have been so focused on petty controversies like comments that Trump made about women years ago.”

That voter isn’t wrong. Gun control, abortion, gay rights, the war on drugs, education policy, climate change, the role of money in politics: all of these have been ignored in favor of an unprecedented focus on questions of character, scandal, and temperament. 

Only 90 minutes remain for Trump and Clinton on a shared national stage, and the candidates almost certainly will in sum be asked questions on a more narrow range of topics than any previous set of candidates in a three-debate cycle. In the six elections which followed the current debate format (there were only two debates in 1984, 1988, and 1996, and just one in 1980), candidates have been questioned on 23 distinct issues, on average. Through two debates, Trump and Clinton have covered only 11. 

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Mixing Personal Characteristics and Policy

While personal character may again be at the center of this debate, past moderators have been able to expertly form questions that cover policy through personal opinions. In 2004, moderator Bob Schieffer posed this question to John Kerry and George W. Bush:

Both of you are opposed to gay marriage. But to understand how you have come to that conclusion, I want to ask you a more basic question. Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?

Susan Rook–one of three selected panel journalists–asked presidential nominee Ross Perot this question back in 1992:

You’ve talked about going to Washington to do what the people who run this country want you to do. But it is the president’s duty to lead, and often lead alone. How can you lead if you are forever seeking consensus before you act?

Moderator Bernard Shaw famously asked this question of candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988:

If Kitty Dukakis [candidate’s wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

Dukakis’ bloodless answer provided ammunition to those who felt he was a technocrat, unable to connect with the common man.

Expect higher ratings, but nothing close to the first debate

Though ratings for the second debate were down 21 percent from the record audience that watched the first Trump-Clinton showdown, last week’s event was still the third most-watched presidential debate since 1992. Recent historical precedent suggests we should expect slightly more viewers than the 66.5 million who watched the second debate.

Since the current format of three debates was permanently adopted in 2000, the final meeting between candidates has reached the second-biggest audience in three out of four cycles. Tonight’s debate also won’t be competing with the NFL or weekend plans.

Does it even matter? 

Though tonight’s debate will likely attract the eyeballs of one-quarter of the country’s adults, it probably won’t have much impact on who will be sitting in the Oval Office. Based on the current poll averages, which have Clinton up by seven percentage points nationally, a Trump comeback would be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. More than that, there is scant evidence that general election debates have the potential to cause the type of shift in the race necessary to tip it in Trump’s direction.

Historically, the first televised debate, held in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, is often cited as propelling the tanned, camera-ready senator from Massachusetts to a narrow victory over his sweating, haggard-looking opponent. Since then, however, evidence that debates have materially influenced the winner of any presidential election is hard to come by.

In 2004, then Democratic nominee John Kerry was deemed the winner of all three presidential debates. Yet George W. Bush ended up securing his second term with relative ease. Attempts to measure the true impact of the debates have proved inconclusive, but the consensus from political scientists seems to be that they have a real, but relatively small effect, on voters’ preferences.

What’s more, establishing causality in the midst of a busy campaign is nearly impossible. This year, Clinton did see a significant rise in her poll numbers following her strong performance in the first debate, but that coincided with the release of audio tapes in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. Both events undoubtedly played a role in Clinton’s widening lead, but quantifying the impact of each is difficult.

Generally speaking, by the time the third debate rolls around, most voters have made up their minds. According to the Real Clear Politics average, 91 percent of voters already support either Clinton or Trump. The main purpose of the last debate is traditionally to cover topics not touched on in the other debates, and it’s hard to imagine a bombshell that would significantly damage Clinton’s odds of winning the White House.

This election has proved to be anything but traditional, suggesting the final debate will be, at the very least, worth watching.


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Carlett Spike and Pete Vernon are the authors of this piece. Spike is a CJR contributor and Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow.

TOP IMAGE: Hillary Clinton speaks as Donald Trump stands during the second US presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis