The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How could Monday night’s debate affect the election? Let’s think up some extreme scenarios!

Debates usually aren't that consequential. When it comes to 2016, just throw the word "usually" out the window.

Images of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen on a CNN vehicle, behind a security fence, on Sept. 24, at Hofstra University, in Hempsted, N.Y. (Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The presidential race has undeniably tightened, and it would seem that the stakes of Monday night’s first 90-minute debate couldn’t be higher.

Of course, that elides the fact that many debate moments have not had a critical effect on the race. Mitt Romney had an outstanding first debate against President Obama but did not win. Lloyd Bentsen gutted Dan Quayle, but George H.W. Bush still defeated Michael Dukakis. Ronald Reagan stumbled badly in his first debate with Walter Mondale, but one quip in his second debate and that was that.

Of course, there are other examples of when a debate moment seemed to matter: the first John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon televised debate; Gerald Ford declaring that Poland wasn’t under Soviet domination; George H.W. Bush checking his watch in a town hall debate. Except that if you look at John Sides’s analysis from 2012, even those debate moments were not all that consequential. The one exception might be the 2000 debates, which contributed to a two-point swing from Al Gore to George W. Bush. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop concludes, “It seems that debates likely haven’t changed the outcome of any recent election except, perhaps, for 2000, which was so close that any number of things could be said to have made the difference.”

As for the expectations for this debate, media outlets including Breitbart and Talking Points Memo think Clinton will have the edge. Of course, that means that the expectations bar is higher for Clinton than it is for Trump. She also has the challenge of Debating While Female, whereas Trump’s proxies make these kinds of grandiose claims:

Perhaps we should look at this debate in a different way, however. What could Trump or Clinton do Monday night that would be game changers? Things that would be replayed endlessly on cable news and social media, things that simply cannot be spun?

Here are four possible moments that I think would have an unambiguous effect on the presidential race going forward, ranked in ascending order of probability:

4. Clinton takes ill. It’s one thing for Clinton to wobble as a result of pneumonia. If, two weeks later, she seems unwell on the national stage, then she will have played into every Trump claim about her weakness that he has made this election cycle. All of the problems with Trump’s opacity will fade next to a major-party candidate who is seen to be covering up a serious health problem. If Clinton faints on stage, that’s the ballgame.

3. Trump leaves the debate early. This is my favorite wild card. The debate is 90 minutes, one on one, without commercial interruption, and without audience participation. In the primary debates, Trump could withdraw for long stretches while the other candidates tried to whack one another. That’s not an option this time. Trump is very skilled at pushing the buttons of a sympathetic crowd, but one-on-one policy debates require a very different skill set. Imagine a scenario in which Trump makes gaffe after gaffe while Clinton remains poised. His Hail Mary move could be to reject the debate as “rigged” and storm off the stage in a huff.

2. Either candidate seeks help from moderator Lester Holt. With all the fact-checking brouhaha going on, what will matter is whether either candidate seems to need Holt to help them out in a tough moment. I suspect Trump will try to interrupt Clinton repeatedly to rattle her, and I also suspect that Clinton has a few surprises ready to lob at Trump when he says something predictable. The question at that moment is whether the candidates confront each other or turn to Holt as an ally.

To be clear, appealing to Holt would not play well — we expect presidents to be able to hold their own on a debate stage (Clinton did this once in a 2008 debate against Obama, and it did not go well).

4. Trump curses at Clinton. Trump in general displays poor impulse control, and 90 minutes of uninterrupted, one-on-one debating can frustrate even the most poised of candidates. Add in the fact that Clinton is a woman, and Trump doesn’t deal with strong women terribly well in the best of times.

Clinton’s goal is to make Trump look unpresidential, because that’s the electorate’s biggest concern about Trump. The quickest way for Trump’s temperament to become the issue is for him to get angry and lose control. Given how he responded to the news that Mark Cuban would be in the debate audience, it seems as though this could be a live option.

To be clear, I would not put money on any of these things actually happening. All of these scenarios are low-probability events. But they’re the most conceivable low-probability events I can conjure up. And, much like people watch NASCAR races to see if there will be a crash, I suspect many people will be watching this debate to see if something analogous will happen to either of the major-party candidates.

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