Why the 2016 presidential debates really matter

What to expect in Clinton vs. Trump debate
What to expect in Clinton vs. Trump debate


    What to expect in Clinton vs. Trump debate


What to expect in Clinton vs. Trump debate 03:09

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Though most presidential debates have little sway over the electorate, the 2016 debates may be an exception
  • Given the potential for these debates to matter, expect Clinton and Trump to descend in a bitter and nasty fight, writes Zelizer

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The three presidential debates this fall will probably be unlike anything we have seen before. Although commentators like to speak in hyperbole, in 2016 they could be right.

The reason is clear. American politics has not seen anything like Donald Trump. If his performances in the Republican primaries are any indication of what is to come, the verbal battles between him and Hillary Clinton will be intense, dramatic and contentious. Trump will certainly approach these events like a reality game show, hoping he is the last person left standing.
    Julian Zelizer
    The truth is that presidential debates rarely have a huge effect on the outcome of the election. Scholars who study elections and debates generally agree that the ability of these confrontations to have a dramatic impact on the polls is minimal unless the Electoral College race is extraordinarily close, which right now is not the case.
    When we look back at some of the most colorful moments in presidential debates, gaffes and stumbles are used to explain dynamics that were already at work in the campaign. As John Sides wrote in the Washington Monthly, "The small or nonexistent movement in voter's preferences is evident when comparing the polls before and after each debate or during the debate season as a whole."
    But these debates -- beginning with the first, on September 26 -- might be extremely significant, more so than in previous years. So what makes them different?

    A restive electorate

    The most important reason is that there have just been many points in this election season when conventional wisdom and social science have been shaky. We were told that media-based candidates like Trump enjoy their moment in the spotlight but then quickly fade as reporters move on. This was based on the understanding that political parties still have immense control over determining their nominees. The experts were wrong.
    Donald Trump discusses debate prep work
    Donald Trump discusses debate prep work


      Donald Trump discusses debate prep work


    Donald Trump discusses debate prep work 02:12
    By all accounts, given Hillary Clinton's immense experience and Trump's erratic behavior and thin command of public policy, polls should show the Democratic nominee blowing him out of the water. It seemed that way after the conventions, but the gap between them has narrowed. Although she still retains a lead in the battleground states and nationally, the closeness of the race is enough to make people nervous.
    With all of this, it is clear that something strange is going on in the electorate. And, hence, there is more than enough reason to think that the debates can have a bigger poll punch than normal.

    The Internet effect

    The number of people who will watch these debates should be extraordinarily high. The anticipation about Trump's ability to put on a performance is strong. Fifteen million people already tuned in to see Trump and Clinton go back to back with Matt Lauer in last week's "Commander in Chief Forum." That is just a taste of what is to come. Many Americans won't be able to resist turning on the television or going online to see what will be the 2016 equivalent of the "Rumble in the Jungle."
    And if the viewership is high enough, the debates may be able to move more voters than usual.
    We also now live in a media environment, particularly with the growth of digital news, that is different even from 2012. Four years ago, 17% of those surveyed reported obtaining their news from social media platforms, while 36% relied on Internet news sources. Today, 65% report receiving their news from digital sources.
    The reach of the Internet will allow clips of the debates to be played over and over again. The extensive political media, ranging from television to the Internet, and the vast expansion of political news will offer opportunities for the debates to be rehashed over many days, if not weeks, in a way that was not true in previous years.

    The celebrity factor

    Never have there been two candidates who are better prepared to take advantage of television debates like these two. Of course, Trump thrives when the cameras are rolling. Without any hesitations about what he will do or say to keep attention focused on him and to attack his opponents, Trump is prepared to create the kind of spectacle that plays well for a generation of Americans who have grown up with the modern, no-holds-barred media.
    He also is a television performer who achieved his biggest celebrity through his NBC show, "The Apprentice," not his record in real estate. Unless the moderators are fully prepared for his onslaught, as Lauer's stumbling performance last week demonstrated, Trump is capable of dominating the event and defining its tone and tenor.
    Clinton is no slouch, either. She has spent most of her time since 1992 (and to some extent before then) in the media spotlight. We have seen how she can keep her steely demeanor even in the midst of an onslaught of televised attacks from opponents and that she knows how to get under the skin of an adversary. If Trump is totally confident that he will be victorious, he might want to take a look at the Benghazi hearings, when she testified for hours without losing her composure and made her Republican interrogators look like hotheads who were stumbling all over the place.
    Simply put, both Trump and Clinton have the potential to put on a riveting performance that either win more voters to the GOP or produce the kind of exodus toward the Democratic Party that some of Clinton's supporters are now predicting.
    Follow CNN Opinion

    Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    Battle royale

    The three debates will also matter since both campaigns are centered on character assassination. For Clinton, the goal is to prove to voters that Trump is unfit to hold this office. He is not stable, he is untrustworthy, he is not knowledgeable, and he is fundamentally a danger to the Republic. For Trump, the goal is to prove that Clinton is a liar, that she is not as competent as she says, and that she does not have the demeanor to be president (a claim steeped in gendered assumptions).
    The one-on-one confrontation will be their best bet at making the other candidate play to character, and as a result sparks will fly as they descend into a bitter and nasty fight.
    So get ready for a battle royale. Given the potential for these debates to matter, expect the very worst from these candidates and anticipate three events unlike anything we have experienced before.