How Trump could win the first debate even if he loses

If you think about it, there’s something troubling about a debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump breaking records for the most-watched debate of all-time.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Trump is like no one we’ve ever seen. The spectacle itself is worth tuning in for. Heck, he might even make a penis joke.

Debates are supposed to be substantive. The candidates are supposed to be judged on their proposals and their knowledge of the issues. But here’s the problem: no one believes that’s going to happen. In fact, if we we’re judging this upcoming debate the way we should, the way we always have, we would be talking about the breaking the record for the fewest viewers of all-time. Why? Because no one doubts Clinton is smarter, has better proposals, and has a better understanding of the issues. It’s just not close.

I’ve been very vocal in my view that the media has graded Clinton and Trump on a curve, resulting in an enormous media bias in favor of Trump. But admittedly, I don’t know how much that has affected the race, if at all. It’s really just been all speculative up until now.

But the debates will change that. It’s long been understood that the 90 minute debate isn’t all that influential when compared to the days of analysis that will follow. The pundits and analysts on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, NBC, etc. are the ones who will decide the “winner” of this debate, not the candidates themselves. Dumb, yes. But that’s how it works.

If this is the first time the candidates are judged solely on substance and competence, it will be a welcomed surprise. But I’m not counting on it. So the scorecard for the debate is likely to be pretty simple: Either 1) Trump said something stupid that will be played on TV for weeks, and he lost or 2) Trump didn’t say something stupid, looked presidential, and he won.

That’s clearly a very low bar. Very low. It’s tantamount to saying that virtually every presidential candidate who has stepped on a debate stage (OK, besides Rick Perry) could win this debate just through their presence on the stage. And Trump can reach that bar, even if he fails to answer any follow-up, lies a bit, maybe adds a little more fog to his immigration plan. It won’t matter, as long as he doesn’t fill a 15 second clip with a sexist, racist, or generally offensive remark.

Yes, debates are probably overrated when it comes to their actual effect on the race. But evidence shows debates can have a small effect. And with the race settling around a 2-point Clinton lead, a declarative Trump-win from the media could swing this into his favor. Even a month and a half out, that’s no small thing.

This is, no question, the biggest test yet. Will the pundits grade this debate as they should (on policy and substance) or on a curve? I’m not optimistic.