In an election year when conventional wisdom has proven to be unreliable, experts say it is still a good bet that the presidential debates that begin Monday in New York will mostly serve to sway undecided voters.
It’s doubtful the debates will lead true believers to abandon Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or Republican nominee Donald Trump, said Paul Leonard, adjust professor of political science at Wright State University and a former mayor of Dayton.
Undecided voters are the rich bounty the two debaters will target in a very tight election with as many as 20 percent of voters still undecided and more than 100 million people expected to watch the debate, said Leonard, who also served as Ohio’s lieutenant governor.
Mitchell McKinney, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri who has studied presidential debates for decades, said a strong debate performance by either of the candidates could sway even some voters who are currently leaning toward one of the third party candidates.
“I believe we will continue a neck and neck (race) right up until Election Day,” McKinney said.
RELATED >> Local experts weigh in on tonight's debate
For Wright State University, the debate Monday is a reminder of what might have been, since Wright State was picked originally to host the debate and then bowed out because of funding and security concerns. Instead of in Ohio, the debate will be held at Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island. But Wright State won’t be completely removed from the event, as 15 WSU students will be inside the debate hall.
Some of those students, like a wide swath of Americans, haven’t completely decided who they’re voting for.
“I typically side more with the Republican vote but I’m not quite sure how I feel about Trump yet,” said Emily Whittaker, 19, a sophomore communications major from Centerville.
“I’m hoping to maybe get a little clarification on Hillary’s end on the emails and I’m hoping to see a more personal side of Trump than the jokiness, the things he tries to say that are comical,” Whittaker said.
Army Col. Silas Martinez, a doctoral organizational psychology student at Wright State, declined to say who he supports but described himself as a fiscal and social conservative who is most concerned with who the next president will appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Martinez said Trump should address security and the economy to win over undecided voters in the debate.
“And for the proportion of the undecided vote that falls into the minority demographic, I think he needs to not offend them,” said Martinez, who lives in Beavercreek.
Martinez said Clinton needs to convince voters she is deserving of their trust.
“She needs to somehow portray that she’s honest,” he said. “I’m not saying that Trump is perfectly honest. (There’s) flaws in both.”
Leonard said Clinton should explain some of the decisions she’s made and appeal directly to those who haven’t made up their mind on a candidate yet.
“There are some people in the middle who are going back and forth on what to do,” he said. “That’s the group she needs to go after.”
Political experts are in general agreement that Trump needs to dial down the tone and harsh words that marked his performances in primary debates.
“Mr. Trump’s primary target audience, his core, is really going to give him a lot of latitude to say whatever he wants to say,” said Randy Sparks, a professor of marketing at the University of Dayton. “It’s traditional Republicans and moderates who will decide the election so Mr. Trump needs to speak to them and convince them that he is qualified and prepared.”
The candidates could gain points with voters if they address the nation’s concern over gridlock in Washington D.C., said Donna Schlagheck, professor emerita and past chair of Wright State’s political science department.
“Whoever is elected is going to be president of a divided country,” said Schlagheck, who is accompanying the Wright State students to Hofstra. “No one is talking about the paralysis, the sclerosis of Congress.”
Schlagheck sees the Hofstra trip, which was paid for by sponsors, as a huge learning opportunity for the students. Not only will they get a seat to history, but they will be paired with Hofstra students and be able to participate in various activities on the Hempstead, N.Y., campus.
Hofstra invited the students after Wright State pulled out as the host university for the debate.
Karla Schuster, assistant vice president in Hofstra’s office of university relations, said 7,500 Hofstra students have entered a lottery to get inside the debate hall but it isn’t yet known how many will be picked.
Hofstra is spending “slightly” more than the $4 million to $5 million spent hosting a 2012 presidential debate, Schuster said.
About 3,500 journalists are expected to attend the debate and all of the area hotel rooms are full, said Kristen Jarnagin, president and chief executive of the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We’re certainly excited to see this piece of business come through,” said Jarnagin. “From a media perspective and an economic standpoint it’s a very nice boost. The media exposure that we’ll get on a national stage for both Long Island and Hofstra University is the biggest benefit.”
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