The presidential debates are normally vastly overhyped by partisan activists. But those activists aren’t really the intended audience.
Instead, the people the candidates are trying to convince aren’t those who voted for them — or, indeed, anyone else — in the primaries. Rather, they’re trying to reach out to the most important people in America, at least during a presidential election year: that small sliver of undecided voters, especially in swing states, who will truly decide the election. If they can convince those voters that they’re the best option (or, conversely, that their opponent is unacceptable) then they might be able to eke out a narrow victory.
This time there’s a difference, however. The candidates aren’t trying to convince a small, undecided portion of the electorate to go one way or the other. That group basically doesn’t exist this year. Normally, many voters don’t start paying close attention to the race until after Labor Day, but this year most people have already made up their minds about the two major-party presidential candidates. The difference is that this time, a significant portion of the electorate has decided that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are unacceptable. They’re telling pollsters that they’ve decided to reject the two-party system entirely.
It would be easy enough to presume that the electorate is simply using the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green candidate Jill Stein as a stand-in for “undecided,” but there’s little evidence of that. Historically, third-party presidential candidates have barely registered in the polls, with most voters unaware that they even exist. This is the scenario most partisan operatives prefer, of course, as a two-way dynamic is infinitely easier to understand and manipulate than a multi-candidate race.
However, Trump and Clinton can’t afford to pretend that’s the case as they prepare for their debate. They’ll have to use this opportunity to reach out to those voters who have already rejected them, and that’s entirely different than reaching out to the undecided, who are usually centrists. While some of those supporting third-party candidates may be centrists who consider the two major-party candidates too extreme, others are activists who believe the candidates have moved too far to the center already. If the presidential contest remains close, then Trump or Clinton could prevail by appealing to either the center or the fringe.
Of course, these are entirely different strategies. Normally, one would expect both candidates to swing to the center after winning the nomination, but neither has shown much inclination to do so. Instead, they’ve stuck to their guns (or at least are pretending to) on issues that helped them win the primary, but that have little appeal to the electorate in the center. The problem that both candidates face is that most Americans already consider them to be untrustworthy and unreliable, so flip-flopping on an issue now may simply reinforce that image rather than broaden their appeal.
All of this means that both candidates, facing pressure from their flanks and the center, are stuck between a rock and a hard place with both policy and strategy in the debates. The choice they face is not whether they alienate any voters, but which voters they choose to alienate. The important thing for those voters who are still disappointed with both candidates after tonight’s debate is that the two people on stage are not your only options in this election. If you believe both of them are unfit for office — whether because of policy, personality, or both — you don’t have to check the box for either one. If you do, you’re only ensuring future disappointment and enabling the two parties to keep ignoring you.