After all the hoopla, the anticipation, and a series of increasingly negative ads, Hillary and Trump will finally find themselves together on a stage for the first time tonight, as Lester Holt moderates at Hofstra University. This could be either the nastiest debate in television history, or it could be the most boring – and almost all of that will be determined by where the respective candidates believe they stand.
Both candidates would probably prefer to sit back on their haunches and do nothing, if they feel like they can get away with it. This has basically been Hillary Clinton’s entire M.O. since day one of her primary campaign, and her general election campaign has been more of the same. Clinton is counting on the idea that not being Donald Trump is enough to win – and if she still thinks it is, expect her to be very low key throughout the night.
Trump, on the other hand, has to have noticed that keeping a lower profile has helped him in the polls. Trump isn’t especially tuned in to any issues whatsoever, but if there’s one thing he’s demonstrated that he has the capacity to pay very close attention to, it’s his own polling, And it seems that Conway and Bannon or whoever has his ear right now has successfully convinced him that it is in his best interest to keep his head down and let Hillary Clinton destroy herself.
Of course, the complication in this particular calculation – for both sides – is that it’s extremely difficult to get a read on who actually is in the lead right now. The publicly available polling is wildly conflicting right now. Some polls show Trump ahead, a majority of polls show Clinton ahead, and all of them show a very close race.
Adding to the complication, of course, each camp has their own internal polling, and who knows what it shows, or how much the candidates themselves believe it.
Bottom line: we could have a debate tomorrow night where both candidates believe they are winning, in which case it will be a total snoozefest of love and respect. Or we could have a debate where both candidates believe they are losing or are on the verge of losing, in which case the battle between these two could be the all-time nastiest debate. Or we could have a scenario where either one goes after the other, who sits there trying to be as docile as possible. Either way, one thing we’ll know after tomorrow is what each campaign thinks about the state of the race as it stands right now.