Q & A: What to Expect from the Presidential Debate

Political Management Program deputy director says candidates need to show poise, positivity.

First Presidential Debate
September 26, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

Monday night marks the first presidential debate, bringing nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump together for their first face-off in a contentious campaign season. George Washington Today spoke to Beatriz Cuartas, a visiting professor and deputy director of the Political Management Program in the Graduate School of Political Management, about what viewers can expect to see.

Q: The topics are “America’s Direction,” “Achieve Prosperity” and “Securing America.” How would you translate those generalities into concrete issues that might come up at the debate?

A: The first two topics are kind of the same: They deal with economic security. When we did the Battleground Poll a few weeks ago that was at the forefront of American minds. People are concerned about the economy. They want to see concrete plans that they can understand are going to help America go in the right direction.

A lot will depend on how the electorate is feeling about the current administration. Some Americans are feeling like President Obama has done an amazing job getting America out from the economic depression of the George W. Bush administration. But another section of the electorate feels like America is on the wrong track.

And those are the two voices we’re hearing in this election. Hillary Clinton talks about how America is going in the right direction. We can do better, but we have the resources and the ability. And then you have Donald Trump, who talks about America looking bad, America not doing well, everything is wrong.

“Securing America” speaks to both economic and national security. People want to feel safe about their jobs. They don’t want jobs shipped out overseas. But it’s also about physical and personal safety—feeling safe in our bodies, safe at home, safe in our country, safe in the world.

Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of controversy at home around the safety issue. Our African-American community feels unsafe because of police violence. Our Hispanic community feels unsafe because many people are worried that they won’t be able to stay here. The bottom line is that with a population that’s feeling insecure, a candidate’s most important job will be bridging the gaps between our communities. United we stand, divided we fall.

They’ll probably be asked: What are they planning to do in their first 100 days as president? How do they plan to generate jobs and keep them at home? What are their plans to lower poverty in the U.S.?

Q: How important is this debate to Trump's campaign? What would count as a “win” for him?

A: I would say the debate is important for both candidates. It can transform the way the American people view a potential leader because this is where they see how their candidate will represent them at home and abroad. That’s one of the primary duties of the president, to be a spokesperson for their country.

So both candidates need to display calm poise. They need to show that they are able to reflect rather than to react when they respond. And I think that’s going to be a challenge for Trump, because, first, he will need to stick to facts and tell the truth, and he’ll also have to keep calm and collected, which is really tough for him.

Also, he’ll have to bring watchers together instead of dividing them.

Q: Do you think there’s a difference between how each candidate will be perceived?

A: Yes, and that’s because there’s a gender difference. For Hillary Clinton, I think her goal will be for people to walk away with three clear promises that they can articulate and relate to about what the first female American president will do. Three takeaways.

She will have to not be defensive or nervous, just to be very relaxed. She’s really beautiful as she is. She laughs great, she’s a very jovial person when she’s not on TV and in the media. So I hope she will just let that soft side of her show. Vulnerability has an incredible power.

But regardless of that gender difference, Hillary Clinton has a very important job when she is responding to the debate questions. Her strategy, from what I have read, is to attack. And I think that the winner of this debate is going to be able to be a peace agent during the debate. The winner of the debate is going to be able to keep calm and collected. That’s going to be one of the key winning elements.

The second key winning element will be which candidate can generate positive feelings and emotions. That was part of what made “Yes We Can” so successful. That slogan brought people together in acknowledging things that are great about America—innovation, diversity—and promised to make it even greater.

Both candidates need to start talking nicely to the American people, basically.

Q: How much do debates really affect the outcome of an election, generally?

A: I think this debate could be important because if it goes well, the electorate may actually feel positive about America and the direction it could go. But if the candidates continue in the same way they have been, it will just make us feel the same feelings of disenchantment and anger. If you really want to rise to the challenge and be of service to the American people, the way to do that is to inspire the best in all of us.