Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Your guide to the heavyweight presidential debate

Gather family and friends tomorrow evening. Grab some popcorn and your 64-ounce Diet Dr Pepper (or something stronger, in Frank’s case). Settle down in front of your favorite device (smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, TV) and watch the political equivalent of the “Thrilla in Manila” (for you young’uns, that was the Ali/Frazier World Heavyweight Boxing Championship). In one corner we have Hillary “Power Through” Clinton. In the other we have Donald “Pull no Punches” Trump.

How important is Monday’s debate in the presidential race?

Pignanelli: "In every debate … there is one and only one way to identify the winner: Who commands the room? Who drives the narrative? Who is in charge?” — Jeff Greenfield

Political weirdos, especially LaVarr and me, can maintain long-winded arguments about the impact of presidential debates upon actual elections. There are two schools of thought. Some view the verbal matches as pointless entertainment while others believe the determination of the leader of the free world and many of the other races are determined by the event. With persuasive documentation — real and fabricated — I proffer the latter is the abode of intelligent people.

In some elections (i.e. in 1976, 1980 and arguably 2000), the outcome was determined by the real and perceived performance of the candidates. Media and water cooler discussions influenced voters’ deliberations. For example, in most polls Carter was ahead prior to the debate but suffered a major defeat the week after. In other years (i.e. 1988, 1992, 2008) the verbal sparring enhanced the existing trajectory.

Furthermore, debate performance can impact the morale and enthusiasm of campaign supporters. This momentum or drag carries over into other races down the ballot. Other candidates can be beneficiaries or victims from the two hour wrestling match.

Because of the nature of this election season, the candidates involved, their willingness to say almost anything, and the belief by many that the debate will drive the outcome, Monday’s performances are not to be missed. For political junkies, the presidential debate is the Super Bowl, game seven of the World Series and the Academy Awards all wrapped together.

For me, the special evening requires the best: meatballs and wine.

Webb: Most people have already made up their minds, but the battle is for the small number who haven’t. Even a few percentage points may be important. Trump probably has the most to gain. If he can appear presidential and reasonable, he may be able to win back some traditional Republican voters, especially women, who don’t want to vote for Clinton, but who don’t like him. I think Clinton has mostly peaked, but Trump has opportunities to pick up support.

Both campaigns will claim victory. But how can Utahns best determine a successful performance?

Pignanelli: Do not expect a dignified Lincoln-Douglas exposition tomorrow. Trump and Clinton are more likely to engage in a political demolition derby. The least banged up will be considered the winner.

Utahns have trepidations for Trump, and unease for Clinton. So local voters should be attracted to the candidate who best can push some thoughtful deliberation through all the noise and hyperbole. (Yeah, but we can hope.)

Webb: Americans are ready for someone to blow up Washington and disrupt the status quo. That’s Trump’s advantage, and he needs to exploit it in the debate. But he has to demonstrate that he can shake up the establishment without wrecking the lives of you and me. He must not say something outrageous in the debate and create a whole new controversy. The revolution has to be rational and prudent. Be the bad boy rebel, but show some empathy for average people. If Trump can reassure voters, especially Republican women, that he’s on their side and that he actually has a sensible plan, then he’ll be the winner.

Clinton has to convince voters that she’s not the most establishment, status quo candidate in history, that she has new ideas to solve America’s problems. That’s tough to do when you’re the consummate Washington insider. It would be refreshing for Clinton to acknowledge the limitations of government, that higher taxes, higher deficits and more regulations aren’t the answer to all of America’s problems.

Will there be any impact on Utah races?

Pignanelli: Mail ballots will arrive shortly. There are several swing legislative and county elections that will be determined by voter motivation. A perceived glorious triumph or outstanding failure could deliver victory or defeat to these key races.

Webb: The presidential race simply isn’t going to have much influence on Utah contests, despite a recent poll showing Utah voters are less likely to vote for someone who supports a presidential candidate the voter doesn’t like. I believe presidential considerations are less important than many other local issues and factors. Utahns will vote for the person, without worrying about national implications.