Prediction: How Donald Trump Will Handle the Final Presidential Debate
Hint — He’s given up on his dreams of sitting in the oval.
Since the beginning of this election season, we’ve essentially seen two very different sides of Donald Trump: “Authentic Donald” & “Trump On-Message.” Whether strategic or not, he’s been able to use both to his advantage. The former during the Republican primary, and the latter (though less effectively) during the general election against his democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
If you’re a political junkie like me, then you know that Trump On-Message has a been a difficult role for him to play. He is much more in his element when he can leverage his pillars of comfort: maintaining an aggressive vibrato and playing to the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. In the first debate against Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton, he delivered a convoluted mix of both versions of himself. Sure, he delivered the level of aggression we’ve all come to expect from him. But the content he delivered in parallel left a lot to be desired, from all sides: not pointed directly enough at Hillary’s jugular to continue to rile his base, yet too incoherent and uninformed on policy to expand it (a frustrating issue for Republicans this entire political season).
In the last Presidential Town Hall (debate 2), we saw something different. His level of aggression was accurately calibrated to fit the venue type: calmer, more soft-spoken, addressing a smaller audience — true to form for Trump in this setting. But the content still missed the mark for a general election — it clearly targeted his base. In case you forgot: 1. He invited Bill Clinton’s past indiscretions to the debate 2. He stalked Hillary Clinton around the stage while she delivered her responses to questions from the audience 3. He delivered the now infamous “you’d be in jail” zinger to Clinton. You didn’t have to be a political strategist in D.C. to notice he was tossing red meat to his base and abandoning the idea of expanding his appeal to the general election voters.
By why? Why would he do that? Mathematically, it is impossible to win a Presidential Election in the United States without at least 270 electoral votes. And demographically, it’s impossible to earn 270 electoral votes without expanding your base in the Generals. Furthermore, history suggests, presidential debates are the most effective forum at speaking to a General Election audience.
In order to understand Trump’s psychology here, it’s important to reference The Art of the Deal. To Trump, winning is sometimes a subjective term. And as noted in the book, protecting the downside and maximizing optionality are to be practiced in all games of strategy. Within the context of this Presidential race, this suggests that (at least in his eyes) he can fail in his bid for the White House, but still win.
Two days ago, CNN Money reported that Jared Kushner (Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top advisor) is pitching “Trump TV” to media executives and the investment community. If by the second presidential debate, the Trump campaign had already given up on expanding its base, then they’d clearly identified another way to win. Since the electoral college math & history don’t suggest there is another route to Pennsylvania ave. with his campaign’s current trajectory, it can only mean that Donald Trump has changed the definition of winning. Shore up and secure your appeal amongst your most avid supporters because the best way to launch a media and content network is by making sure 37% of your total addressable market continues to be bloodthirsty for your content. This also calls to question why Trump added Roger Ailes (ex-President of Fox) and Stephen Bannon (ex-Head of Breitbart News) as top aides on his campaign staff.
In tonight’s debate, my prediction is that we will witness classic Republican Primary Trump: loud, brash, conspiracy-theorizing, factless rhetoric with the aim of playing to the emotional heart strings of the people that love him most — the far right of the Republican Party. Because launching a media empire at the end of a presidential bid, depending on ones perspective, is still winning.