Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are headed to St. Louis this Sunday for the second presidential debate, because these candidates know there is no quicker way to your heart than by eating up the last precious moments of your weekend! It’s town hall–style, which means voters in the audience will ask half of the questions, while moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper will dole out the rest. The 90-minute democracy match starts at 9 p.m., and you can stream it live here.
Here’s a peek at what we’ll be watching or keeping in mind during the second-to-last night when Trump and Clinton will have to stand next to each other.
Debates by the People, for the People
Moderators always seem to cover the same ground during every single debate, which means that plenty of issues that are important to voters never get mentioned. Who knows what the voters in the audience will want to hear the candidates talk about, but their questions tend to be far more specific than the queries offered by moderators (ex: How will you help millennials who can’t find a job in the manufacturing industry?), which will provide a nice change of pace.
But — plot twist — the moderators have also decided to let the internet offer its own set of questions. The 30 most popular questions on the Open Debate Coalition’s website will be considered and maybe used on Sunday (we’re thinking of you, people stuck moderating this website and getting rid of the questions about Harambe). The question of choice right now is about universal background checks, while other ones near the top are about Social Security, the Second Amendment, and Citizens United. No one has asked if either candidate would nominate Boaty McBoatface to the Supreme Court yet.
The Elephant (or Natural Disaster) in the Room
There is one topic that hasn’t been discussed yet that will probably make a much-needed appearance, albeit thanks to unfortunate circumstances. Hurricane Matthew is slamming into much of the southeast this weekend; leaders in states like Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina have ordered evacuations, saying that “this storm will kill you.” More than 200 people have died due to the hurricane in Haiti. It could be the strongest storm that the U.S. has seen in years.
Even the Waffle Houses are closing.
Climate scientists have said that intense hurricanes could grow fiercer thanks to global warming — although the sample size of storms is small enough that they’re still trying to figure out the exact ramifications — which means that this would be a good time for Clinton and Trump to air their many differences on the issue of climate change. If climate change doesn’t come up (few people like being accused of politicizing a disaster, except maybe Matt Drudge, who already floated the rumor that the entire storm is a liberal government conspiracy), the candidates will surely at least discuss disaster preparedness.
In Less Pertinent, If Perhaps Inevitable News
As for other crucial issues that voters will be eager to hear about, Trump has waffled on whether he wants to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs or not. After the first debate, in which he bragged about his discretion in only alluding to President Clinton, he emailed Page Six to say, “I want to win this election on my policies for the future, not on Bill Clinton’s past.” Despite his pride in mentioning that he won’t mention his opponent’s spouse’s bad behavior in front of tens of millions of people, Trump has already sort of brought it into the discussion at rallies. “I don’t even think [Hillary’s] loyal to Bill, if you want to know the truth,” he told a crowd in Pennsylvania last week. “And really, folks, really, why should she be?” If this were happening in a novel, it would be called foreshadowing. There is a not-so-slim chance that Trump will "slip" and mention it, especially if the evening ends up focusing on everything embarrassing that has happened to him since the last debate — the release of a year of his tax returns and his nearly billion-dollar loss, his defense of fat-shaming, the New York Attorney General’s decision to send a cease-and-desist letter to the Trump Foundation … the list goes on and on.
It would be great to hear the candidates talk about abortion, voting rights, criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, LGBTQ rights, college debt, veterans (especially after Trump’s remarks about PTSD), and education. We’ll have to wait and see if these are things that the people in the audience care about too. Back in 2012, Pizza Hut briefly offered free pizza for life to anyone who asked Mitt Romney or Obama about their preferred pizza toppings. Thankfully, no one did. Let’s hope we can avoid electoral product placement this time.
Dependable Debate Maneuvers: Reprise
We’ve seen these two on a stage enough that it’s somewhat easy to predict what they’ll do once they’re up there. The town-hall format might change a few things — instead of staring blankly at their opponent while trying to convey contempt, they’ll have to infuse their “I’m listening very, very hard” face with empathy — but we have a feeling that these moves will show up again.
As part of the Trump campaign’s desire to convince everyone that we are living in Groundhog Day and that we get to start every day fresh, Trump will disavow everything he has ever said by interrupting —
As we were saying, by interrupting the moderators and Clinton to say that their summaries of his actions —
OK, you get the idea.
The Biff Tannen
Although Trump is the one who inspired Back to the Future’s villain, it’s Clinton who’s adopting one of Tannen’s signature bullying tactics.
Clinton spent most of the first debate pointing at Trump’s past and noting its many imperfections. When Trump tried to sweep in and address the issue at hand, he usually just ended up poking himself in the face. This happened with his taxes, his habit of not paying contractors, and his treatment of women. If given an opportunity to talk about himself, Trump can’t resist, and Clinton’s going to try the same move this time. We’ll see if he falls for it again.
The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Clinton’s campaign has been trying to “record [Trump] and his running mate embracing, denying or evading controversial positions that [he] has taken in recorded speeches” in order to create good footage for future ads, an end that explains the Biffsome means.
A “No” Says 1,000 Words
One of Clinton’s best primary debate moments happened after she was asked if she wanted to respond to Lincoln Chafee’s (we forgot that he ran for president this year until this very moment too) comments about her emails.
If Trump does bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs, she might bring her most taciturn debate response back for a sequel.
Great Question. Now Let Me Answer a Completely Different One.
If the candidates get asked any questions that they really don’t want to deal with, watch out for them to answer one that makes them look good instead. All political debaters do this, and Clinton and Trump will try to find as many opportunities as possible to reframe questions in order to get their points out. Clinton will try to find a way to talk about Trump’s temperament when asked about her ties to Wall Street or emails, and Trump will in turn find ways to mention that Clinton has been in politics for decades at every opportunity. We might even have to hear the words “Trumped-up trickle-down economics” again.
How Are They Preparing?
Trump did a sort of scrimmage town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday, although he assured the audience that it was definitely not debate prep, and he was just there because he loved the state’s voters. It was easy to believe that the event would not prepare him for Sunday, as the questions offered by Trump supporters were softballs made of strawberry marshmallows. Even though his team tried to make Trump winning the last debate a thing, they have also offered a long list of reasons explaining why he might have lost, hypothetically — blaming Lester Holt, Trump’s microphone, or the fact that his debate preparation reportedly consisted of eating bacon cheeseburgers at a golf course with Rudy Giuliani. Trump is already preparing a list of excuses for another, very hypothetical loss. “He’ll be very biased, very biased,” Trump said of Cooper last month. “CNN is the Clinton News Network, and Anderson Cooper, I don’t think he can be fair.”
Trump has reportedly adjusted his debate prep. This time, he and his advisers are holding “conversations over salad and sandwiches” instead of burgers. Chris Christie has also been giving Trump lots of town-hall advice, and he is going to try to focus on policy for the entire duration of the debate.
It is not clear how much he will change, as many people on his campaign have been assuring the world he did great. “I’d encourage Donald Trump to do what he did in his first debate, and that is be himself,” Mike Pence said. “Why would we change if we won the debate?” Giuliani added.
As for Clinton, she’s left the campaigning to her surrogates for much of this week and is reportedly focused on cramming for the debate, just in case Trump did learn something.
Lessons Learned from Down-Ballot Debates
If Trump and Clinton are looking for ways to spice up their debate delivery, they can borrow some innovative debating moves from their brethren on the bottom of the ballot.
Note: None of these moves have been approved for general political consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. Use at your own risk.
— Try winning over skeptical young voters by dabbing.
— Try winning over skeptical young voters by quizzically looking at the other person trying to dab on stage.
— Say that you are definitely a role model for America’s children — and then backtrack a day later after you realize that you’re so unpopular that it might be smarter to say that America is a land without role models.
— Take the most cynical route and tell viewers, “I don’t ask you to trust me. I ask you to quit trusting the other side.”
— Craft a look that says, “I’m part Monopoly man, part Yukon Cornelius.”