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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Will Trump vs. Hillary be the fight of the century or just a dud?

With so much anticipation and “fight night” type-hype leading into tonight’s first presidential debate (at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, moderated by NBC's Lester Holt) between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, many people could be losing perspective on what these forums tend to mean for a presidential race overall.

If past elections are a guide, the debates won’t matter a great deal.

David Byler of Real Clear Politics wrote late last week, “The data show that while individual debates can shift presidential debatesthe polls, the debate season (which includes all three presidential debates, the vice presidential debate and the media coverage surrounding them) typically doesn’t change the state of the race very much…

“It’s important to note that past elections might not be a perfect guide this year. The number of undecided and third-party voters is larger than usual, and campaign events have forced the polls up and down at various points in the campaign.”

In our day and age of the 24-hour news cycle with pundits tweeting as fast as their fingers can type and droning on and on at various cable news outlets after the debates, it’s not surprising that many folks are attaching significance to this year’s events beyond what normally might be expected in a given election year.

With the presence of two extremely well defined and generally unpopular candidates, there’s likely only a small slice of the electorate that will be tuning in tonight to see if one of the competitors might be able to sway their vote.

The rest will be watching to see how badly the other candidate will hang herself (or himself).

In this regard I believe Donald Trump likely has the most to gain because his main battle up to this point has been combatting his sometimes self-inflicted negative image and the media created narrative that an “outsider” first-time politician lacks the policy gravitas to step into the Oval Office on day one.

The dozen or so Republican primary debates didn’t reveal much of an evolution from Trump in terms of offering a lot of policy specifics and I don’t think there’s reason to believe he’ll change his approach drastically for the general election forums opposite Hillary Clinton. Everyone knows she’s going to be name-dropping and citing numerous statistics to bolster her arguments as well as to try and use her quarter century in politics – aka experience -- as justification for choosing her.

But let’s not forget a lot of that time was spent fending off scandals, including much of the past year in dealing with her email crimes for which she was not charged nor adequately accounted for.

Naturally, the expectations for Trump aren’t overly high tonight, so Pat Buchanan thinks Trump will use the low bar to his advantage. Writing in The American Conservative, Buchanan said, “Specifically, what does Trump need to do? He needs to show that he can be presidential. He needs to speak with confidence, but not cockiness, and to deal with Clinton’s attacks directly, but with dignity and not disrespect. And humor always helps…

“No matter how [Hillary] performs, though, Donald Trump can win the debate, for he is the one over whom the question marks hang. But he is also the one who can dissipate and destroy them with a presidential performance.”

Ah yes, the matter of being “presidential.” Trump scored big points a few weeks ago during his visit to Mexico in this department. As Buchanan mentions in his piece, Americans want to see if they can envision Trump as the president. A year ago I never thought I’d be saying this, but yes, I can now see him delivering the State of the Union address every January.

Part of Trump’s evolution has been adopting a teleprompter for his major speeches. He’s not tethered to the thing like Obama has been for his eight years, but there’s little doubt prepared text helps keep the Republican nominee focused and on message when addressing the citizenry.

But there’s also a lack of refinement that comes along with Trump. Republicans recognize it.

Jesse Byrnes of The Hill reports, “Republican National Committee (RNC) chief strategist Sean Spicer said in a memo Thursday that Trump won't come across as polished as the former secretary of State in their Monday debate.

“’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,’ [Spicer said in the memo].”

Funny that Spicer should use the term “verbal gunslinger” to describe Trump’s off-the-cuff debate style. It’s exactly the type of thing that got Trump in trouble from time to time during the primary debates when he would openly mock his opponents as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco” as well as get deeply personal with poor Jeb Bush.

To that extent, some of Trump’s former rivals had some suggestions for Crooked Hillary on what to expect from the Republican nominee.

Ben Kamisar of The Hill reports, “Trump is a relatively inexperienced debater compared to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but he can't be underestimated.

“Here's what a handful of top aides to Trump’s primary rivals say they learned from debating — and losing — to The Donald.”

The list includes:
Be authentic, not overly scripted
Push back, but don’t get down into mud
Lean on your policy strength
At the same time, don't be overly wonky
Don't prepare for a weak opponent

I’m not sure what to make of the previous Trump rivals’ advice since some of it appears contradictory. For example, it’s difficult to lean on your policy strength and not be overly wonky at the same time.

I think Clinton is at her worst when she isn’t wonky because people don’t trust her or believe her personal stories. Does anyone truly think she’s a cuddly teddy bear of a grandma who reads books to little kids and spoon feeds them porridge in their high chair? Or do you see her more of the witchy “woman power” type who doesn’t “bake cookies” and hires a nanny to take the grandkids to the playground while she heads off in her pantsuit to make another speech to some Wall Street executives?

It’s only a matter of hours until we find out whether Donald Trump can be “presidential” in a one-on-one debate and also if Hillary Clinton can lay out her experience while coming across as human at the same time.

My money’s on the “presidential” one.

Non major-party candidates won’t be at the debate and deservedly so

I haven’t yet seen the stage setup for tonight’s event but it’s a sure bet that there will only be two candidate podiums facing the moderator, a fact that no doubt upsets the third party candidates, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party.

And then there’s Evan McMullin (who?), the virtually unknown Republican from Utah who is running as an independent. No matter how frivolous his candidacy might be, McMullin got one noteworthy endorsement on Friday.

Erick Erickson writes at The Resurgent, “McMullin gives people a reason to show up. He gives conservatives someone they can vote for without holding their nose. He gives people someone to vote for instead of reconciling themselves to voting against someone. McMullin’s candidacy is not the lesser of an evil, but an alternative against evil. For many, that will be enough…

“I am realistic that Evan McMullin has a limited chance of winning. But I am idealistic enough to hope for better than Clinton or Trump.”

Erickson said McMullin could appear (or can be written in) on as many as 40 state ballots by Election Day.

Like most #NeverTrumpers, McMullin not only rejected Trump and Clinton, he also couldn’t stomach Johnson and Stein. Therefore, he figured America needed a FIFTH alternative!

This is pure fantasy, of course. McMullin may pull a few votes from the most disgruntled of #NeverTrumpers like Erickson and the sad lot at RedState as well as various other kooks who can’t bring themselves to take part in reality, but other than these protest voters that are present in every election, who in their right mind would waste a vote on him?

The same goes for Johnson and Stein, though they at least have the backing of an organized party in their favor. We’ll laugh at them a little less heartily for the effort.

Everyone knows either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be president next year. All of the absurd online posting in the world won’t change that fact.

And even if Trump had lost in the primaries and Ted Cruz was in his place, does the #NeverTrump crowd seriously believe the election dynamics would be different now?

Here’s what I think: If Cruz were the Republican nominee today, the media assault on him would be unrelenting and merciless. Trump at least provides some entertainment value to his somewhat odd political campaign. For Cruz, the media would dig out quotes from junior high classmates or the parents of his friends to portray him as an ambitious and weird bookworm who had trouble relating to other children. They’d go after his parents and put their divorce on the front page.

Then they’d say he doesn’t have any friends in the Senate.

Then there would be a media spotlight on the Republicans who, like with Trump, couldn’t get themselves to back Cruz in the election because he’s “too extreme”. John McCain would be distancing himself from Cruz, calling him a wacko bird. Paul Ryan would say he doesn’t agree with Cruz’s tough stance on Muslim immigration, though he reluctantly still backs him. John Kasich would take issue with Cruz’s “tone.”

And the Bush family, with the exception of Jeb (who endorsed Ted late) would remain silent on supporting Cruz. Let’s not forget that George W. Bush told donors that he “didn’t like the guy” earlier this year. Karl Rove would be criticizing Cruz for everything, just as he does for every conservative non-establishmentarian.

The establishment will never wholeheartedly embrace an outsider. Trump is the only one who could possibly win in this environment. We’ll see how he does tonight.

Ted Cruz does the right thing, endorses Donald Trump

With the latest astonishing dump of FBI documents detailing Hillary Clinton’s sleazy law breaking, the aftermath of the riots in Charlotte and the lead-up to tonight’s debate, Ted Cruz’s announcement on Friday that he was going to vote for Donald Trump almost got lost in the weeds of media hysteria. But it indeed happened.

Jesse Byrnes of The Hill reports, “Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has endorsed Donald Trump for president, a stunning reversal after Cruz for months refused to back the GOP presidential nominee.

“’Our country is in crisis. Hillary Clinton is manifestly unfit to be president, and her policies would harm millions of Americans. And Donald Trump is the only thing standing in her way,’ Cruz wrote in a Facebook post.

“’A year ago, I pledged to endorse the Republican nominee, and I am honoring that commitment. And if you don’t want to see a Hillary Clinton presidency, I encourage you to vote for him.’”

I chuckled a little when I read Byrnes’ description of Cruz’s new position as a “stunning reversal,” because one, it’s hardly “stunning” and if you think about it, it’s not really even much of a “reversal.”

In his convention speech, Cruz urged Americans to vote for the candidate who would uphold the Constitution and defend freedom, and while Trump may not fit the description perfectly, we know Cruz was not talking about Hillary Clinton.

The only possible alternative interpretation to Cruz’s convention argument was that he was giving the okay to vote third party, but even that’s highly doubtful. Everyone knew Cruz meant “vote for the Republican” without saying it. Newt Gingrich said as much in his speech shortly after Ted was booed off the stage.

Conservatives were furious at Cruz for failing to utter the words “I will vote for Trump.” Fair enough. With Cruz’s “coming to Trump” moment now, however, I’m guessing a lot of the anger will be forgiven if not forgotten.

Needless to say, the #NeverTrumpers aren’t quite so inclined to look at Cruz’s contrition charitably.

 Burgess Everett, Katie Glued and Matthew Nussbaum of Politico report on the reaction, “[Cruz’s] about-face stunned the political world and supporters who've flocked to his no-compromise conservatism. But so much had changed in the past 60 days that Cruz apparently believed he had no other choice than to bust out of the political box he had built for himself in Ohio…

“But Cruz, at least publicly, has come to see the election as the binary choice Republicans have been citing all along as they fall in line behind Trump: The business mogul isn’t their first choice, but he’s better than Clinton.”

The wrath at RedState was intense, but at least one of the RedStaters admitted he felt “relief” that Cruz endorsed Trump and indicated he would do similarly in voting for the Republican nominee.

If even someone at RedState has come around to Trump, you know the nominee is that much closer to getting nearly all Republicans onboard.

I sense there was a whole lot more “relief” out there than rage with Cruz’s announcement. This is a good day for the Republican Party.

Trump ups the ante with huge TV ad buy before the election

Finally today, it won’t be any more visible when the candidates take the stage tonight, but Donald Trump is about to become a fixture on a TV screen near you.

Anna Giaritelli of the Washington Examiner reports, “Donald Trump's campaign is expected to drop an estimated $140 million on ads through Election Day, AP reported late Friday.

“The buy would include $100 million in television airtime and $40 million in digital ads, according to senior communications adviser Jason Miller.

“The Republican nominee's team will devote $60 million of the TV ads to local markets, including Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine, New Mexico and Wisconsin. The remaining $40 million of TV funding will go toward national commercials.”

Needless to say, the Trump campaign has taken a lot of heat for its lack of presence on TV. There has been a lot of talk about how Crooked Hillary was way ahead in defining Trump because of the couple hundred million she and her Super PAC supporters had already dropped in attacking him through negative ads.

It was all wasted. Of the most recent national polls, most have shown Hillary with a slim lead or the race dead even. It just goes to show all the TV ads in the world can’t change the fact that Hillary has a massive trust deficit in the country. Clinton’s only chance was to try and make people believe Trump was worse than her. It didn’t work.

I think the debates will be consequential this year in determining the ultimate winner, but only in Trump’s direction. Hillary doesn’t offer much in terms of new policies or “hope” that the economy will improve. And a new email-driven scandal will appear every week.

So no matter what the pundits say after tonight’s debate, remember the big picture. That picture will become clearer and clearer as Election Day approaches.

To take take the CHQ Three Question 2016 Presidential Poll click here.

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