For Clinton, high expectations stem from ample experience. Clinton is a career politician who has spent years sharpening her debate reflexes and beefing up on public policy. Donald Trump is new to the format. Aside from the primary debates (which have lower levels of attention focused on them and many more participants), Trump’s lack of formal, political, one-on-one debate experience gives Clinton a significant advantage.
This view is informed in large part due to Clinton’s adroit performances in past debates. Clinton’s been at it since she’s been on the debate team in high school, and she has shined on some of the biggest stages before. In 2008, in the thick of the Democrat primary, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod admitted Clinton had “a very strong debate performance” against then-Senator Obama. In 2016, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was frustrated by the fact Clinton did not make a single “significant mistake” during the five times they were on stage together. She knows how to debate, and by all accounts, she is a methodical and intense consumer of information in her preparations beforehand.
Just ask her campaign. Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon described Clinton’s approach in seeing the debate stage as a “proving ground.” Chief Strategist Joel Benenson echoed Fallon by declaring of Trump, “I don’t think he can go toe to toe with her,” and speculated Clinton “will come out on top.” Not to be outdone, Clinton surrogate Ed Rendell said she held her own on many occasions in 2008 against Obama, who he called “probably the greatest debater in public speaking, in politics, in our lifetime.”
The optimism in the Clinton camp is shared in the media as well, where there is almost unanimous agreement Clinton is an adept debater. Dana Bash, Chris Matthews, and Chris Hayes note how “seasoned” she is, and more pundits than we can count (including John Heilemann, Wolf Blitzer, and Mark Shields) laud her talent, experience and debate skills.
Trump hasn’t been running for president for 24 years, he’s spent his career as a successful businessman. Few are expecting the same level of polish from a verbal gunslinger whose rhetorical strength is speaking to the heart – and the gut – of the American people.
Aside from the Super Bowl, the first debate has very high potential to be the most watched television event of the year. With so much riding on this moment and a wealth of experience working in her favor, Hillary Clinton has no excuse not to turn in a near-flawless performance.