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Debates are game-changers . . .well, no

With the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump just hours away, the media hype about this campaign event is in full-swing. Pundits are promoting the debate as a “make-or-break” performance for both candidates. Cable news networks have spent the better part of the weekend leading up to the debate discussing the strategies that each candidate will use and today will feature CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC over-analyzing everything from moderator Lester Holt’s political affiliation to what the candidates will wear.

Despite the hype, the reality is that presidential debates rarely change the dynamics of the campaign that are already established this late in the election season. Political science research demonstrates that even the most memorable moments over the last five decades have really produced no game-changers, despite claims to the contrary.

Political scientists Robert Erickson and Christopher Wlezien performed regression analysis on the pre and post-debate polling results from 1960-2008 and found little difference in the support for each candidate after the debates, even though many believe that major changes occurred.


For example, in 1992, President George H. W. Bush was criticized for looking a his watch in the three-way debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot with pundits claiming that he was disinterested. The data show, however, that his action had no difference.

The one debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976 appears to be the outlier. There we signficant differences in the polling results after the debate in which Gerald Ford infamously commented that Eastern Europe was free from Soviet domination. However, contrary to public memory, the direction of public opinion was toward Gerald Ford, not away from him. He began the campaign against Jimmy Carter almost 30 percentage points behind, primarily because of his pardon of Richard Nixon in 1975. By Election Day, even after the Eastern Europe gaffe, Ford closed Carter’s lead and lost the election by two percentage point–hardly a game changer that hurt him.

If history is a lesson, then tonight’s debate will not change the overall dynamics of the race between Clinton and Trump. Polls show that the race is close, but that Clinton has a narrow lead in national surveys. Unless something really extraordinary happens–well beyond what we have seen in previous presidential debates–even a gaffe of Trumpian proportions may affect this race very little.

The Presidential Leadership Qualities of Clinton and Trump

For most of 2016 voters have been bombarded by absurd campaign promises by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Building a wall across our southern border with Mexico, rapidly defeating ISIS, or quickly reducing income inequality are impossible or unrealistic in the short term. Likewise, voters have been subjected to media stories too often focused on things only tangentially related to a president’s ability to govern.


As the campaign for the presidency approaches the final weeks, voters need to cut through the clutter and focus on the leadership qualities that each major contender would bring to the job. In our constitutional system, presidential leadership is highly institutionalized and presidents must mobilize support from the bureaucrats, Congress, and the public.


Effective presidential leadership is a complex calculus of many different qualities. In examining whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton has the potential for presidential greatness, their skills need to be judged against a set of criteria for effective leadership.


Using political scientist Fred Greenstein’s six criteria for effective leadership, the following observations can be made of Clinton and Trump:


Effectiveness as a public communicator. An effective political leader must be able to persuade citizens about policy positions. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan used very different rhetorical styles in getting public support around many of their major initiatives. Neither Clinton nor Trump comes close to the persuasive skills of those or other effective presidential communicators.


Hillary Clinton’s public communication style can best be described as efficient. Her speeches are logically organized and demonstrate a thorough understanding of policy issues. Clinton’s rhetoric rarely soars, even in her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech. At her worst, in speeches and interacting with the press, she lacks an emotional connection with her audience and can revert to sarcasm, as she did in characterizing many Trump supporters as “deplorables.”


Donald Trump favors unscripted communication events where his natural bombastic style can energize supporters and anger critics. His speeches tend to ramble and repeat soundbites rather than make substantive policy arguments. Trump draws energy from his audience and, at his worst, makes unsubstantiated and outrageous comments that divide rather than unify.


Organizational Capacity. An effective president must assemble a strong team and use that team to vet policy positions. Those on the team should have the ability to disagree with the president to reduce the likelihood of poor decisions. Franklin Roosevelt was well known for encouraging his advisors to disagree with one another and him on policy matters, while Dwight Eisenhower encouraged advisors to articulate very different points of view on foreign policy matters. Both Clinton and Trump prefer loyal, but silent, advisors.


Hillary Clinton values loyalty among those around her, which can create a cohesive team of advisors. However, while these loyal advisors can defend Clinton against outside attacks, they can be less effective in arguing with Clinton over her ideas and approach to politics. Creating a team with more devil’s advocates might have prevented many of her troubles with her late decision to oppose the Iraq War or her stubbornness in dealing with the email controversy.


In business Donald Trump always values his instincts and hires people to carry out his plans, not disagree with his ideas. Throughout much of the presidential campaign, Trump has exhibited disdain for advisors who attempt to change his way of thinking. Only recently with his third campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has Trump exhibited a willingness to follow advice.


Political Skill. Effective presidents recognize that the executive branch is only one part of the federal government and use their interpersonal skills to persuade, cajole, or threaten their way to getting legislation passed. Lyndon Johnson was the modern president whose political skills were the most successful in getting a sometimes recalcitrant Congress to pass legislation. Hillary Clinton demonstrated political skill as US senator, while Donald Trump relies on bullying to get results.


As a senator, Clinton demonstrated the ability to work with Democrats and Republicans alike. For example, she worked with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on legislation rewarding US manufacturing, and, after 9/11, worked closely with military leaders to promote more benefits for the military and keep US bases open.


Policy Vision. Effective presidents often create a consistent, transcendent vision out of their policy positions. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are two presidents whose policy visions inspired citizens to believe in their leadership. Neither Clinton nor Trump exhibits such a clear policy vision and this lack of vision creates problems for both on the campaign trail.


Hillary Clinton often has visionary ideas, such as the health care plan she prepared for her husband’s administration. Too often, however, Clinton retreats from policy positions, like on the Iraq War or the Trans Pacific Partnership, therefore appearing less visionary than opportunistic.


It is rare in presidential politics that a candidate, like Donald Trump, appears to have no policy vision. Trump has relied more on his campaign slogan and superlatives about his abilities than on clearly connected policy statements. Even on the one issue he has staked his campaign on—immigration—Trump vacillates on the means and goals of his policy.


Cognitive Style. Presidents must understand the complexities of policy issues and use vast amounts of

information to craft positions on these issues. Even before he entered the White House, Richard Nixon understood the changing dynamics of foreign policy toward the USSR and China and created an innovative approach to move beyond the Cold War policies of earlier presidencies. In terms of strategic intelligence, there is a vast different between the analytical approaches of Clinton and Trump.


Hillary Clinton possesses an analytical mind that reduces problems to their component parts. When she studies an issue like health care or how to renovate and modernize public schools, Clinton pours over data, talks to experts, and becomes a policy wonk on the issues. Having such an analytical approach can be problematic for Clinton because, like with her email controversy, it makes her fail to see the broader implications of the policy.


In business and politics, Donald Trump has an intuitive approach to problems. He follows his instinct and does not delve deeply into the intricacies of policies. Possessing above average intelligence, Trump shows little interest in learning about policy matters, putting a lot of pressure on his advisors who must accurately and succinctly analyze issues and give Trump policy options.


Emotional Intelligence. Effective presidents must manage their emotions and not be ruled by them. George H. W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower generally managed their emotions when facing domestic or foreign situations, or on the campaign trail. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was ruled by his temper and paranoia to the point that it led to his downfall. Although far from perfect, Clinton rarely is controlled by her emotions, while Trump’s emotions hold him hostage.


For almost three decades in public life, Hillary Clinton has managed her emotions in public through scandals, investigations, and difficult policy matters. She never appears to make an important decision when angry or frustrated. The emotional intelligence skill that is Clinton’s greatest challenge is demonstrating empathy. Her comments about West Virginia coal miners, for example, created many problems for her.


While Donald Trump’s supporters treasure his ability to state what he is thinking, Trump is often ruled by his anger. After discovering that the Mexican president disclosed that he told Trump that Mexico would never pay for the wall between Mexico and the United States, Trump angrily changed his major policy speech on immigration to reflect the toughest possible stance on immigration and contradict statements Trump made earlier the same day.


This analysis demonstrates that both Clinton and Trump have leadership deficiencies, but that Donald Trump lacks every leadership quality associated with presidential greatness.