Expectations in Full Swing Ahead of Monday’s Presidential Debate

Republicans are praising Hillary Clinton as the most skilled and experienced politician ever to stand behind a podium. Democrats note Donald Trump, a former reality star, is especially savvy on television.

Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (CREDIT: CNN)

Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (CREDIT: CNN)

Despite such compliments, an era of good feelings isn't suddenly consuming the nasty 2016 presidential race.

Instead, the expectations game is in full swing two days ahead of the first crucial debate between Clinton and Trump -- a clash that will be watched by millions around the world and could prove decisive in determining the winner in November. In the run-up to the debate, both sides are turning to the age-old practice of highlighting the strengths of their competitor in an effort to minimize the impact of their own flaws.

"The expectations game is always huge. Sometimes the expectations matter more than the debate itself," said Aaron Kall, editor of a new book, "Debating the Donald," which dissects Trump's performance in the primary debates.

The Clinton campaign is trying to shape the battlefield by pointing out that Trump will be in his element on Monday night.

"For all his lack of substance, Trump's showmanship, as ex-reality TV star, makes him a formidable debate foe. He thrashed his rivals in GOP debates," Brian Fallon, Clinton's national press secretary, tweeted in August.

By that reasoning, anything less than a thrashing for Clinton will be spun as a win.

At the same time, the Trump campaign is working hard to raise the stakes for Clinton, arguing that his recently rising polls mean she needs a game changer.

"Given her extensive experience debating, high level of preparation, and scripted nature, Clinton's campaign no doubt views Monday night as the best opportunity to alter the trajectory of the race," said Trump communications director Jason Miller in a memo this week.

Miller said that Clinton had "more debates under her belt than almost any presidential candidate in history."

Top Republican National Committee strategist Sean Spicer also weighed in, noting that "Clinton has been at it since she's been on the debate team in high school."

And both sides are trying to get into their opponent's head. The Clinton campaign invited Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a prominent Trump critic, to sit in the front row at the debate. Trump responded Saturday with a threat to bring Gennifer Flowers, with whom Bill Clinton admitted to having a sexual relationship decades ago, to the event.

Flowers has said she is planning to come to the Monday debate, but it is unclear if the Trump campaign is planning on inviting her.

While representatives of Flowers have not responded to CNN's inquiries, a tweet from her account had earlier said: "Hi Donald. You know I'm in your corner and will definitely be at the debateā€Ž" and she has now told some other media she is planning on attending.

Charade makes no sense

Of course, this quadrennial charade makes no sense. After all, why would a campaign all but suggest that a hated foe is almost certain to wipe the floor with their candidate before a national television audience?

What is really going on in this period of embellishment is an effort to shape the media coverage of a debate -- often as important in deciding how a showdown shapes the campaign as what the candidates say. If a candidate is predicted to struggle in a debate but ultimately vaults over the low bar, surrogates and analysts will proclaim an upset win.

Days of coded warnings are also used to put moderators on notice that their questions, cross examinations and comments will be parsed mercilessly for bias and that they will become the story if they don't play ball.

Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters this week that the campaign's biggest worry is whether expectations for Trump are so low that he can't help but exceed them.

"I think that my biggest concern is ... that people accommodate their questions to suit the candidate in front of them and that is what has happened to Trump in the past," she said.

Palmieri's comments were a veiled warning to the moderator of the first debate, Lester Holt, that he must hold Clinton and Trump accountable to the same standards of questioning. Holt's NBC colleague, Matt Lauer, was slammed by Clinton supporters who thought he gave Trump an easier ride than the former secretary of state at a forum earlier this month.

Trump has argued Democratic complaints about Lauer were meant as a warning to Holt.

"In trying to hit Matt, they are trying to game the system, game the ref," Trump said in North Carolina this week.

"But I think Lester will be very fair," Trump said. "But a lot of people will be watching to see if that is true."

History of debate games

Debate games have a long history in politics.

In 2000, for instance, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign pulled off a similar trick to the one Trump's team is trying now. They painted Vice President Al Gore as a debater of such skill that he would almost certainly bury the Republican in their first debate.

Bush aide Karen Hughes described Gore as "one of the most polished debaters in American politics."

Her colleague, Karl Rove, praised Gore as the "world's most pre-eminent debater, a man who is more proficient at hand-to-hand debate combat than anybody the world has ever seen."

It's true that Gore had excelled in debates before, taking on tycoon Ross Perot in a CNN debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement and more than holding his own against GOP vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp in 1996.

The media bought into the idea that Gore was a rhetorical giant and Bush was a oratorical pygmy. The New York Times story previewing the Bush-Gore clash described the sitting vice president as "one of the most artful and combative debaters in modern history."

Gore's failure to meet that bar severely wounded his campaign.

"People were expecting Bush to come in an stumble around and embarrass himself and for Gore to crush him," said Kall. "Gore probably won the first debate and all of the debates. But because of the expectations game, Bush was seen as the winner."

By avoiding disaster, Bush met the test of being sufficiently presidential.

"We clearly lost the expectations game," senior Gore aide Carter Eskew told author Alan Schroeder for his book, "Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail."

"I'm not sure we could have won it," Eskew said. "The bar was set very low for Bush. Let's face it, he jumped over it."

The Bush team, flushed by their success, cranked up the spin again ahead of Bush's debate with John Kerry four years later. Bush pollster Matthew Dowd told journalists the Massachusetts senator was "the best debater since Cicero," referring to the Roman philosopher and orator.

His comment, a classic of the expectations setting genre, might also have been a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the absurdity of pre-debate spin.

But it hit the mark, framing Kerry as the favorite -- even though Bush arrived at the debate with all the trappings of the presidency. Bush didn't sustain serious political damage during the debate and went on to win the election, partly as a result of his team's savvy spin operation.

Clinton's task on Monday will be to stop Trump's spinners from pulling off a similar coup.