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'Showman' Trump and 'wonkish' Clinton race to lower debate expectations

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with members of her staff onboard her campaign plane en route to Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., from Florida, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Recognizing that the debate about the presidential debates on social media could have as much influence on public opinion as the candidates’ words, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is taking preemptive steps to guide the conversation online.

Days before the first presidential debate between Clinton and Donald Trump, scheduled for Monday night at Hofstra University, the Democratic nominee’s communications staff reportedly detailed a social media strategy for supporters in a conference call Thursday.

According to ABC News, Clinton’s staff urged supporters to talk the candidate up on social media “early and often,” emphasizing her best moments and parroting her message to their followers. They offered tips on hashtags and Twitter accounts to mention and urged supporters to look to the campaign’s official accounts for content to share.

“Tweet early, tweet her name, use those hashtags,” digital director Jenna Lowenstein said.

It is a sign of the prominent role social media now plays in political communications and the Clinton campaign’s recognition that Twitter could drive the national conversation about the debate in hours and days afterward.

Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign,” described a similar messaging operation by Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012 to cement the perception that he won the first debate against Barack Obama. They had short videos, pre-planned hashtags, links to policy statements, and opposition research ready to go.

“Smart campaigns these days really look at that as a pre-debate investment,” he said.

The social media mobilization underscores how significant the Clinton campaign believes this debate will be. Tens of millions of Americans will get their first serious look at Trump and Clinton as candidates on Monday night.

“This could be potentially the most important set of debates we’ve seen in the modern era,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

There is also an element of drama to this first debate that no other event of the season will match.

“It’s the one that gets the most hype, the one that is hardest to predict because we’ve never seen these two people on stage together,” Schroeder said.

The audience may be huge, but some political scientists are less convinced that the debate will shake up the fundamentals of the campaign.

“It’ll be more important as a media event, phenomenon, entertainment…but I don’t think it’ll be as important to the overall state of the race,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor of “Debating the Donald,” an analysis of the Republican primary debates.

With the stakes high and the viewership potentially record-breaking, both campaigns have been working hard to manage expectations. Campaign staff and advisers have painted vastly different pictures of the nominees’ prep styles.

Clinton is portrayed as studious and focused, reviewing briefing books, holding mock debate sessions, and analyzing video of Trump’s past debates. She has reportedly recruited psychologists and even the ghostwriter of Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” who has become a vocal critic of his former employer.

The campaign seems to be sending a message that they take Trump very seriously, even as they criticize him for having little understanding of policy and being temperamentally unfit to serve as president. At the same time, aides are pressuring the media to hold Trump and Clinton to the same standards and not to excuse any mistakes he makes because of his inexperience as a politician.

O’Connell said the detailed reporting on Clinton’s strategy may raise expectations for her, as will the general sense that Democrats view Trump as “a know-nothing dodo.”

According to Kall, Clinton remains the clear favorite to perform better in the debate, despite her efforts to lower the bar. In addition to leading in the polls, though, she has organizational and fundraising advantages that can keep her afloat through Election Day if she fails to bury Trump on stage.

“She doesn’t need to score a knockout punch,” he said.

The description of Trump’s efforts in some media outlets swing perhaps too far in the other direction, with advisers telling the New York Times they are uncertain he can stand still for 90 minutes straight.

“Mr. Trump can get bored with both debate preparations and debates themselves,” the Times reported. “His advisers have been reinforcing the importance of listening and focusing on every word Mrs. Clinton says and looking for ways to counterattack.”

O’Connell said Trump’s campaign has been more effective than Clinton at “underselling and over-delivering” in advance of the debate.

A report from Politico Friday suggests Trump’s team is working harder than they let on. They have reportedly developed a psychological profile of Clinton based on her previous debate performances, attempting to identify her “tells” so Trump can guess when she does not know or does not want to answer a question.

One obstacle for the Trump campaign’s efforts to downplay expectations is their own candidate’s history of boasting about emerging victorious in non-scientific online polls after every primary debate.

At this point, however, what the candidates and campaigns say to pre-spin their performance may not have much effect.

“These candidates are such well known quantities publicly that I think it must be hard to alter any expectations about their performance,” Rosanna Perotti, chair of the Department of Political Science at Hofstra, said.

The hotly-contested Republican primary race gave the public nearly a dozen opportunities to see Trump on the debate stage. Clinton has participated in about 40 debates since throwing her hat into the New York Senate race in 2000. Their strengths and weaknesses are well-known.

Despite the effort to lower expectations, Clinton’s experience and knowledge fill some supporters with confidence.

“There is no way that Trump will perform better than Hillary Clinton,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. “She is knowledgeable, she works hard, she knows the issues and she will outwork him beforehand and during the debate, and not by a little, but by a lot.”

Clinton’s polished professionalism and her mastery of policy could also prove to be vulnerabilities.

“The biggest risk for her is to get too far down in the weeds and look wonkish,” O’Connell said.

While Trump may not be nearly as experienced behind a debate podium, his years as a reality TV star do present an advantage.

“He’s obviously very comfortable on TV. He likes the performance aspect of that,” Schroeder said.

One of the biggest challenges for Trump may be the format. He has never participated in a one-on-one debate, where his proclivity for playing his opponents against each other will do no good.

“There’s only so much that you can hide and triangulate off of others,” O’Connell said.

Even if Trump performs poorly overall, a few well-timed and well-delivered jokes or insults may be all it takes to overshadow the more predictable and conventional Clinton.

“The danger for her is that he will have almost certainly have one or two incendiary comments that will dominate the news coming out of the debate and obscure his otherwise poor performance,” Varoga said.

Those viral moments will be key in shaping opinion of both candidates on Twitter, and that is where Clinton’s planning could pay off.

“[Social media] will have a big voice in determining the winner and loser of this,” Schroeder said.

Clinton is particularly keen to appeal to one audience that will get most of its debate news from social media: millennials. Clinton currently trails far behind the percentage of young voters that Obama carried in 2012.

However, Perotti noted the younger demographic is also less enthusiastic about voting in general.

“It will shape perceptions the most among those who are likely to vote the least,” she said.

During the primary debates, candidates in both parties tweeted out quotes, videos, and comments that reinforced the messages they were delivering on stage or challenged points their opponents were making.

“It’s going to be very important,” said Kevin Wagner, associate professor at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of “Tweeting to Power: Social Media Revolution in American Politics.” “A lot of people are going to be following the social media before, during, and after the debate.”

Unlike other candidates, Trump’s Twitter feed—which he often manages himself—went silent during some Republican primary debates. Experts suspect his team will step up their efforts on Monday, but they may lack the organization of Clinton’s campaign.

“Controlling the message on social media is a particularly important skill in modern campaigns,” Wagner said.

Also heavily influenced by the social media discussion will be members of the mainstream media.

“A lot of media that are covering the debate will be watching the trending topics on social media,” he said.

Reporters will tell viewers what audiences are discussing online, further amplifying the most buzz-worthy moments of the debate. Twitter and Facebook trends will sway the coverage and the public’s perception of the outcome as the candidates sprint into the final weeks of the campaign and the remaining two debates.

“If journalism is the first rough draft of history, then social media is the first very rough outline of that draft,” Varoga said. “And what happens on social media during and right after the debate will guide both news coverage and longer-term thoughts about who won and who lost.”

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