Guided by voices: The most important question about tonight's debate is who will be inside Donald Trump's head — his advisors or Hillary Clinton?

What to watch for as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton square off in tonight's critical town-hall-style debate

Published October 9, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Jeff Malet,
Donald Trump (Jeff Malet,

Even before it all hit the fan, Sunday night’s debate already loomed as the most critical test yet for Donald Trump — before Friday’s leaked tape of the Republican nominee's sexually crude comments to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush helped the 2016 election redefine rock bottom; and before the Trump campaign faced a crisis that stands out even in a season of daily conflagrations.

Reports this week said that the internal polling from both campaigns shows Trump’s support has cratered since the first debate, and that a poor performance in the second one could send even the most diehard Republicans fleeing from him. And that was before the leaked tape resulted in a wave of GOP officeholders rescinding endorsements and calling for him to drop out of the race.

Having come into the first debate obviously unprepared for a high-stakes contest, observers wondered if Trump would buckle down, study, and avoid a repeat embarrassment to save his campaign. Based on the town hall he conducted in New Hampshire on Thursday night, the answer is “No.”

For example, asked if he had really been upset about being upstaged by running mate Mike Pence’s solid performance in the vice presidential debate on Monday, Trump shot down the widely reported notion that Thursday’s event was a dry run for Sunday’s town-hall-style debate while belittling the thought that Clinton is preparing either. The implication being that this stuff isn’t all that tough. “Do you really think that she’s debate prepping for three or four days? Hillary Clinton is resting. She’s saving up her energy,” he told the crowd, to scattered chuckles.

It is telling that, having received nearly universal opprobrium for the job he did in the first debate, Trump is still sneering at the idea of preparation. Instead, he has spent the last week and a half blaming everyone he can think of for his poor performance: the media, moderator Lester Holt, the person in charge of setting the audio level for his microphone. Anyone, it seems, except himself.

It is also telling that Trump’s advisers had been mostly quiet about setting expectations for Sunday night’s debate. Before the first contest, they were leaking stories about how little preparation the candidate had done, in what could have been an effort to make Clinton’s team feel overconfident.

Then the debate started, and viewers needed perhaps five minutes to realize that no, Trump really had done next to nothing to get ready. Clinton got under his skin early and Trump never recovered, giving rambling answers, seeming by turns defensive and angry.

So perhaps Trump’s advisers are feeling burned after burying the bar three feet beneath the ground for the first debate and then watching their candidate fail to clear even that. They are not pretending that his poor performance in that debate has chastened him into preparing for this one. To do so would be so far out of character as to be unbelievable to all but the most credulous members of the public.

As reported by the Washington Post, his advisers seems to have realized, months after most sentient humans reached this conclusion, that no matter the stakes for his campaign, Trump can only take a very limited amount of prep. To read from a script, to memorize answers to questions, to show any of the discipline most candidates engage in, is to acknowledge that replicating his game plan from the primaries for the general election was a flawed strategy. And nothing Trump ever does can be flawed. He is simply incapable of admitting mistakes. Even the “apology video” he released on Friday night in an attempt at damage control over the day’s leak showed about as much contrition as a lion might show after eating an antelope.

So the strategy ahead of Sunday seems to have been as follows: Limit the number of people who pop by Trump Tower or call the candidate to offer unsolicited tips, offer him some advice on body language and talking points, and hope to limit the damage if Hillary Clinton succeeds in once again buying up real estate in his head as if it is her neighbor’s house in Chappaqua.

The problem for Trump is that, unlike Thursday night, the crowd asking questions at Sunday’s debate will not be made up mostly of older white New Hampshire conservatives whose queries betrayed a media diet of Breitbart and Fox News. Nor will the questions have been pre-screened by friendly conservative talk-radio host Howie Carr, or be based on the assumptions underlying those he heard on Thursday: that the agencies of the federal government are corrupt and trying to help Clinton win, or that Hispanic voters who overwhelmingly support his opponent do so only because they have been fooled by the lies of President Obama and the mainstream media.

No, Sunday night he will face Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, two seasoned moderators who bring a wealth of real-world knowledge to the job. It will be another case of a conservative candidate stepping outside of the right-wing media bubble and into a reality where bringing up Bill Clinton’s past infidelities, as Trump threatened to do in Friday night’s video, tends to increase Hillary Clinton’s popularity. There is no reason to think that Trump or his advisers understand this. Yet he is still publicly sneering at the idea he needs to change anything. This is not misdirection. As we have seen for the last year, and especially this weekend, Trump is who he is. That much of the GOP is only now realizing this indicates just what kind of shape the party is in, and will continue to be in even if it fares well in congressional and state elections next month.

By Gary Legum

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2016 Presidential Debates Anderson Cooper Donald Trump Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Martha Raddatz