Debate Prediction: How the Funnier Foe Will Win It

September 21, 2016

In a famous debate moment of the 1984 presidential election, a 73-year-old Ronald Reagan said of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale — and to roars of laughter — “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The Gipper won the duel, not in the point-counterpoint, at which he was awful, but through his grace under fire and good sense of humor. We liked him more. With that in mind, here’s my prediction for the first presidential debate of 2016, as brave as it is shallow:

He or she who gets the most laughs this Monday will carry the night.debate-1-hrc-v-trump

Why and how is something I can only explain through deduction. So first, let’s understand why traditional playcalling won’t work. For every play there is a counter play, and in the case of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who sport considerable flaws and are prone to lock horns, there is sure to be rhetorical gridlock. Consider these four likely cases of self-cancelling call outs and recasts:

Philanthropy Feud  Hillary attack: Donald, you brag of other people’s money while claiming to run a charity that, in fact, is a front for serving yourself. I shudder at who you’d name as Treasury Secretary…  Trump counter: In business, it’s essential to use other people’s money. You obviously know nothing about business. You want to talk about other people’s money? Look in the mirror, Hillary. Look at the totally discredited pay-for-pay Clinton Foundation.

Birther Blame  Hillary attack: I’m offended that you would blame me for starting your bigoted birther conspiracy campaign. I’m offended that you’d admit you’re ‘satisfied.’ And I’m offended that you won’t apologize for the damage you’ve done to your president and your country. Trump counter: You’re the one who should apologize. You started it.

Dueling Deplorables  Trump attack: You hate half of the country you say you want to lead. You coddle those who are here illegally, and you dishonor those who want to make American great again. That’s deplorable. Hillary counter: What’s deplorable, Donald, is your hate mongering. You incite violence. You’ve all but taken out a contract on me. You’ve dog whistled the KKK back into legitimacy. And you’ve had the audacity to campaign in black churches.

Safety Skirmish  Trump attack: American is not safe. We’re letting in terrorists of ISIS, which you and Obama founded. You won’t call it what it is, “Islamic Radical Jihad.” You don’t know your own enemy. So you can’t make America great again. Hillary counter: America will be a whole lot more dangerous with you at the helm, Donald. In just a few months, you’ve alienated every major state leader, except your friend and dictator, Vladimir Putin. You’ve conducted cowboy diplomacy with Mexico, and to no effect. And your son, whom I expect was trained at your knee, thinks that refugees are like poison pills in a candy bowl.

So if the rhetoric won’t stick, what will? One answer is in the variables that adjust the plays. Consider this list from the Standard Factors of Influence resource shown below:humor-factor-for-debate-1

Clinton and Trump each suffer in terms of accuracy, attribution, balance, clarity, exclusivity and transparency. Hillary is strong on breadth and depth. And Trump is good with frequency, friction, repetition, velocity and volume. Trump is entertaining enough, but not in the way that Reagan understood it. Think Morning-in-America.

One factor that stands out is humor. It holds our attention. It conveys a sense of wit and, thus, canniness and capability. And it suggests perspective in a sea of problems. Problem is, neither candidate is blessed with a sense of it. Neither is often seen to be having fun. And unless they’re poked by a late night host, neither is ever ready to tell a joke or take one.

This might mean that on Monday night, no one will win. Conventional attacks and rebuttals will result in no-decisioins and no one may ever tickle our collective funny bone. But if they do, it’s sure to bring a few critical votes their way. Both Clinton and Trump are screaming “fire” in a political theatre that, as some point, will need to hear laughter — at ourselves, at our circumstances, at the ironies we face, and our human futility. For these and other reasons, it is grace, goodwill, and good humor that we want in our American presidents. On Monday, we’ll look and laugh and vote for the better punchline, not the better puncher.

Post by Alan Kelly

Graphics courtesy of Playmaker Systems, LLC