Tonight is the first presidential debate. It is an important moment for both candidates; the debate will attract a vast audience. This makes it a key branding opportunity.
There are only a few changes to reshape your brand over the course of a campaign. Most people don’t go to rallies or events. Despite all the media coverage, they don’t actually see that much of the candidates. During the debates, though, people focus for an extended period of time.
History has shown that debates matter. Poll numbers can swing significantly after the event. Ronald Reagan stumbled in one debate but rebounded in another with the famous line, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
So how should the candidates approach the debate?
Donald Trump needs to reach out to moderate voters. Nothing he does in the debate will have an impact on Trump supporters—they already love Donald Trump. The moderates are key. To reach this group, Trump has to address his core problem, which is that many people think he is bigoted, slippery and unbalanced. He needs to reposition his brand.
So Trump should be serious and thoughtful. He should, of course, drop in an occasional zinger. The focus, however, should be on appearing like a reasonable choice for president.
At the same time, Trump should highlight his primary benefit, which is that he brings fresh thinking and a new approach to our problems. He should focus on the issues facing the country and how he will address them with new ideas. He should repeat, many times, his goal of making America great again.
Clinton has a tougher challenge. It is tempting to be rational and sober, to dramatize that she is a safe choice while Donald Trump is not. She could then attack Trump again and again on various things that he has said.
The problem is that this approach works only if Trump acts like Trump. If Clinton says Trump is unbalanced but he is actually thoughtful and rational in the debate, then people might not believe Clinton. People are skeptical.
Instead of attacking Trump, Clinton needs to lay out her value proposition. Why vote for Clinton? What is the primary benefit? What will be different and better with Clinton as president?
This means that Clinton needs to highlight how she will break with the policies of Barack Obama. People who like Obama will vote for Clinton. These voters are locked in. The swing voters aren’t all completely thrilled with our current president.
So one candidate is repositioning, and the other is trying to put forth a compelling benefit. It will be an interesting evening.