Tonight’s debate may be the last time Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are ever in the same room together. There isn’t much mystery about what Clinton will do: She’ll give lengthy, policy-dense answers to questions about issues, and to the inevitable questions about her emails or other scandals (or faux-scandals) she’ll say the same not-entirely-satisfying things she’s been saying all along. She’ll seem comfortable and confident, though she may toss out a couple of canned lines. But overall, she’ll almost certainly perform perfectly well.
The real question is: What will Trump do? The challenge he faces — trying to change the trajectory of the race in 90 minutes — would be an enormous one for any candidate. For Trump and his Keystone Kops campaign, it’s impossible.
The reality Trump faces is that if something doesn’t change, he’s going to lose, and lose badly. Right now Clinton’s lead stands at eight points in the HuffPollster average. That’s positively huge, particularly when you consider that she has a strong ground operation to get people to the polls, and for all intents and purposes he has none at all. As a point of comparison, in 2012 Barack Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney never went above four points during the general election, and at this point the two were tied.
Each of the previous two debates produced at least one moment that radiated effects outward from the debate itself — to Trump’s detriment. In the first debate, Clinton brought up Alicia Machado, with the fairly obvious intention of baiting Trump into attacking the former Miss Universe. It worked spectacularly: as Machado went on a media tour the campaign had prepared her for, Trump insulted her for gaining weight, thereby validating Clinton’s criticism of him. Thus began an almost uninterrupted two-week avalanche of terrible news for Trump, including the revelation of his tax avoidance and the release of the Access Hollywood tape.
In the second debate, Trump said that he had never done any of the things he bragged to Billy Bush about doing, and that denial apparently had the effect of convincing a string of women to come forward and say that in fact he had kissed or groped them against their will. He’s still trying, without success, to make that story go away.
That’s not only because of the bizarre strategy he has employed of arguing that all those women because they’re not attractive enough for him to assault. It’s also because he has decided that the most important thing for him to do right now is claim that the whole election is rigged against him. Let’s assume that he sincerely believes that’s true. How is talking about it so much supposed to help?
You can bet he’ll bring this question up during the debate, and you can also be that Clinton will have an answer prepared. My guess is that she’ll use it as an opportunity to mobilize her supporters, to say that Trump is trying to delegitimize the election and threaten the votes of certain people, particularly African-Americans (it’s why why always mentions Philadelphia and Chicago when he raises the specter of people voting fraudulently), and the best way to keep him from succeeding is to make sure you get to the polls.
Clinton understands that right now, mobilization is critical for her. But if anything, Trump is demobilizing his supporters by telling them that their votes are probably going to be stolen from them one way or another. More importantly, the key fact about the way Trump is campaigning right now is that he seems to have no idea that he needs to persuade voters who aren’t already supporting him. It isn’t that he’s trying to reach out to them and failing; he’s not even trying. His campaign has become an extended Breitbart rant, aimed at his angriest supporters and meant to encourage little apart from resentment.
If you were an undecided voter right now, would you watch Trump going on and on about how the election is rigged and black people are going to steal the vote, then say to yourself, “You know, Trump has a point. I think I’m going to vote for him after all”?
Or consider that after bringing a group of women who have accused Bill Clinton of various kinds of sexual impropriety to the second debate, this time Trump is bringing Barack Obama’s half-brother, who supports Trump. The geniuses advising him apparently believe this is going to rattle Clinton, because…well, who the hell knows?
This is the kind of thing you do when you hire the CEO of Breitbart to run your campaign. Somehow, reminding everyone that President Obama’s father was Kenyan is supposed to be an effective campaign tactic, when in truth it does nothing more than make Trump’s alt-right fans giggle for a second or two. But at the moment, that’s the level of strategic thinking the Trump campaign is operating at.
So he’ll probably try something unusual at tonight’s debate. It’ll be aimed squarely at the voters who already have their “Make America Great Again” hats, not at the ones Trump actually needs. And it will almost certainly fail.