Donald Trump enters Sunday’s second presidential debate in a perilous and desperate position.
Having decisively lost the first debate, with 84 million people watching, he enters the “best of three” debate series in a must-win situation.
Additionally, you can make the argument that Sunday’s town hall-style debate is a home field advantage for Hilary Clinton.
I could be wrong but until Thursday, I can only remember one previous Trump event that was a town hall, and that was 30 minutes at the NBC News/MSNBC veterans’ town hall in September. Before that, the only other town hall-style event I can recall Trump doing was a Hardball College Tour event in 2000 with Chris Matthews.
Hillary, on the other hand, has done what must be 100 such town halls in the past decade, as a U.S. Senate candidate, as a 2008 presidential candidate, as secretary of state (she did several while traveling abroad), and dozens during the current presidential campaign.
Why does this matter?
Town hall meetings and debates are different.
Instead of being questioned by one or several moderators, members of the dreaded “mainstream media,” the questioners are actual voters. Undecided voters, in Sunday’s case.
Candidates can’t attack voters, certainly not while TV cameras are broadcasting and tens of millions of Americans are watching.
Successful candidates in town hall-style debates demonstrate humility, empathy, and genuine interest in the questioner. They build a bridge to them, in real time. Their facial expressions matter. Their body language says a great deal.
We remember this from recent political history, when George H.W. Bush looked at his watch in 1992, or when Bill Clinton “emoted” in 1992, or when George W. Bush swatted down an overeager and invasive Al Gore in 2000.
Amid the context of Sunday’s crucial debate, Donald Trump would be wise to follow these eight rules if he wants to win this debate:
- Preparation is key—In this case, since a town hall-style debate is unlike anything else, preparation and mock debates are all the more important. Has Trump done mock town hall-style debates? He did hold a town hall meeting Thursday in New Hampshire, which gave him a feel for the debate.
- Have a strategy—Any effective debate prep effort fills the candidate with information in the weeks leading up to it, and then simplifies everything in the final days. Trump needs one or two simple strategic frames for this debate, and he needs to apply them to every situation. One should be: “change vs. more of the same.” Trump is the change candidate in a change election. He needs to find several more, perhaps criticizing Hillary’s abysmal record as secretary of state (“most disqualified candidate in history”), or the whiff of scandal that trails the Clintons (“it’s time to cancel that soap opera”).
- Less is more when you are playing defense—Trump spent far too much time on defensive subjects during the first debate, litigating and re-litigating his tax returns, birtherism and other defensive subjects (the Machado episode at the end). If Hillary forces him to play defense on a subject that does not benefit him, he should either ignore it altogether (as Mike Pence did so effectively), or address it briefly and either pivot or move on.
- Don’t take the bait—Hilary relentlessly and successfully baited Trump in the first debate. He must be more disciplined on Sunday. Trump needs to focus on his message (tax cuts, trade, immigration, strong national defense and conservative Supreme Court Justices). It brought him this far and it can win him more votes. Chasing rabbits about past controversial statements is a road to nowhere.
- Don’t interrupt—A man cannot interrupt a woman without looking like a bully. It’s a simple fact. And Trump is already losing with women and getting destroyed among college educated white women. Let Hillary finish her statements. Respond where you need to. Go back to your strategic frame (“change vs. more of the same”). It is harder to interrupt in a town hall-style debate, but he needs to not do it. Tim Kaine interrupted Pence 72 times in 90 minutes on Tuesday and he essentially lost the debate on that fact alone.
- Demonstrate credibility—Voters want change and know Trump is the change candidate. But Hillary has effectively raised questions about his election being too risky. He should appeal to voters that he will be calm, statesman-like, a strong leader and completely focused on shaking up Washington. Voters need to be able to imagine Trump as president. For all her flaws, voters can imagine Hillary as President. Now he must cross that bridge in their minds.
- Words vs. Actions—Nearly every attack Hillary will launch at Trump will be about his words. He needs to respond by surgically pointing out that her actions have been far worse for the country than his words. The Libyan disaster. The Iran Deal. Syria falling apart. ISIS on the rise. Risking national security with a selfish private server. Corruption in selling access at the State Department to Clinton Foundation donors. These were her actions. Actions far more damaging than his words.
- Convey why you want to be President—Some positivity would go a long way. Both candidates are viewed so negatively, if Trump could offer sunny optimism about the future it would really help. As Chris Matthews wrote in Hardball, voters go for the candidate they imagine “with the sun shining on their face.” Elections are always about the future.
Trump needs to decisively win the second debate. He can do so if he exhibits self-control, discipline, strategy, preparedness, and optimism.
It’s all up to him now.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Matt Mackowiak is syndicated columnist, an Austin-based Republican consultant, and a former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.