Trump attended 11 GOP primary debates
Those performances could provide clues about what he will say on Monday's debate stage
There’s one thing Donald Trump brings to the debate stage Monday night: unpredictability.
The Republican nominee and his allies hope his unconventional style will be a huge asset when he squares off against Hillary Clinton – a skilled debater in her own right.
But with 11 debates under his belt from the brutal Republican primary season, Trump has plenty of go-to moves when it comes to debating.
Here’s what we’ve learned from Trump’s primary debate performances and what they could tell us to expect Monday night:
Trump’s affinity for insults and name-calling quickly became a staple of his presidential campaign. Jeb Bush may forever be remembered for the “low energy” moniker the billionaire coined.
But Trump’s name-calling on the stump before friendly crowds didn’t stop when he joined his opponents on the same stage. Trump repeatedly called Texas Sen. Ted Cruz a liar to his face in several of the debates, and even pulled out the “Lyin’ Ted” moniker.
And when Marco Rubio repeatedly needled Trump, the brash billionaire didn’t think twice before throwing “Little Marco” and “lightweight” in the Florida senator’s face.
“This guy’s a choke artist and this guy’s a liar,” Trump once said of Cruz and Rubio during a debate.
The name-calling and insults served the dual purpose of drawing attention to the core vulnerabilities of Trump’s opponents, while also deflecting from whatever attack they were throwing his way.
If Trump sticks to this pattern, Clinton should gird herself for the “Crooked Hillary” moniker and a volley of adjectives from “corrupt” to “criminal.”
There’s nowhere he won’t go
Trump has done more than just name-calling in the debates.
A big reason his attacks have been so effective has been his willingness to strike where traditional politicians would hold back or take a less direct tack.
After all, Trump is the candidate who suggested Ben Carson was incurably mentally ill due to childhood anger issues and floated the conspiracy theory that Cruz’s father was involved in JFK’s assassination.
Perhaps most memorably, during the March 3 debate, Trump defended himself from Rubio’s attacks on the size of his hands – and the implications about his manhood.
“He referred to my hands, if they are small something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem, I guarantee,” Trump said.
And physical appearance wasn’t beyond the pale for Trump, who once threw this zinger at Rand Paul: “I never attacked him or his looks and believe me there’s plenty of subject matter right there.”
Trump has already thrown every scandal and conspiracy theory Clinton’s way. He’s raised her husband’s sex scandals and called her a “nasty, mean enabler.” He’s also revived the debunked theory that she was involved in the death of White House staffer Vince Foster and has suggested she’s mentally and physically unfit to serve as president.
Trump has already hinted that there’s a chance he’ll cross that line, but only if Clinton does first.
Belittles canned responses
The canned zinger is a staple of presidential debates that, if done right, can leave a mark. But Trump loves to slap down anything he considers to be a pre-packaged, poll-tested line.
During the late February GOP debate, Rubio hit Trump with an seemingly prepared line: “If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it.”
“So cute. Such a cute soundbite,” Trump fired back, undercutting the zing of Rubio’ line.
Clinton can expect a similar retort if she deploys the same tactic. It’s part of a larger theme of Trump’s candidacy – one that bemoans and belittles “all talk, no action” career politicians and makes a mockery of tired political tropes.
That’s not to say he won’t bring any prepared materials
Trump hasn’t brought any focus grouped zingers to his debate performances, but he has frequently recycled lines he’s prone to use during rallies and in interviews.
Whether it’s about the “third world” nature of US infrastructure or lamenting the US trade imbalance with Mexico while saying their leaders are “much smarter” than those in America, Trump’s debate performances are laced with Trump’s favorite throwaway lines.
But while his campaign has consistently sought to lower expectations and downplay the amount of effort the billionaire puts into debate prep, Trump has also arrived prepared.
After Cruz attacked Trump on his “New York values,” Trump arrived at the following debate with a well thought out and even uncharacteristically poignant rebuttal.
“When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York,” Trump said.
Trump has prided himself on being a counter-puncher. He waits for his rivals to go after him and then he hits them back twice as hard.
Throw that into a debate context and Trump’s counter punching gives him a chance to show voters he’s quick on his feet to dismiss rivals’ attacks or deflect with one of his own.
But Trump’s knack for returning fire is also a tactic to try and knock his rivals off kilter and make them look weak.
Rather than wait for his rivals to finish their attack, Trump might interject with a snide comment belittling the line or deploy one of his many facial expressions that will catch the attention of the television audience.
The goal for Trump is to get under his rivals’ skin, poking at them to draw them into a back-and-forth – one Trump likely won’t back down from.
When it comes to Clinton, Trump’s rapid-fire put downs are likely to sound a lot like the schoolyard put down, “I know you are but what am I.”
Pressed on his biggest weaknesses by Clinton, Trump has frequently replied in boomerang fashion, flinging Clinton’s words right back at her.
Go after the moderator
If all else fails, Trump will turn to his favorite tactic of attacking the media – in this case, the debate moderator Lester Holt of NBC.
Faced with tough questions during the primary from conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly – in two separate debates – Trump deflected with a personal attack or threat.
“First of all, very few people listen to your radio show, that’s the good news,” Trump responded when Hewitt asked Trump about releasing his tax returns.
And when Kelly asked Trump during the first primary debate last August about the disparaging comments he’s made about women, Trump famously retorted with a warning.
“I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that,” Trump said.
Already, Trump has sought to work the refs, suggesting Holt would be unfair to him and arguing that moderators shouldn’t play the role of fact-checkers.