Tonight’s opening debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is expected to draw a record-breaking audience, possibly as many as 100 million viewers.
With the election just six weeks away and polls showing a neck-and-neck race, much is on the line.
Here’s what you need to know.
Who’s on Stage… and Who’s Not?
Clinton and Trump will have the debate stage to themselves, even though 76 percent of the country wants another candidate to join them, like Green Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson.
I hope voters get to see former GOP Governors Gary Johnson and Bill Weld on the debate stages this fall.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) September 7, 2016
But neither Stein nor Johnson reached 15 percent in the polls, a requirement put in place by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
While official-sounding, the CPD is actually a private, nonprofit corporation created to wrest control of the debates from the independent League of Women Voters.
From 1976 to 1984 the League hosted presidential debates, giving serious consideration to third party candidates. This angered both Democrats and Republicans, leading them to join forces in 1987 and create the CPD. The sidelined League called the resulting debates “a fraud on the American voter.”
They’re “phony, part of an unconscionable fraud,” said CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite.
Even CNN’s Bernard Shaw, who moderated one of the 1988 debates, called them “a charade.”
Who’s the Moderator?
Moderating tonight’s debate is Lester Holt, who anchors the top-rated NBC Nightly News.
Don’t expect Holt to say anything as critical as Cronkite or Shaw; or even to ask too many follow up questions.
In fact, he may not be allowed to.
A leaked 2012 Memorandum of Understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns outlined:
The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on… questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates.
Neither the CPD, nor the Clinton or Trump campaigns, responded to earlier questions regarding whether they’d signed an MOU for this year’s debates.
Fox News’s Chris Wallace, who’s moderating the third and final presidential debate, seems to have taken the 2012 MOU to heart. Correcting inaccurate candidate statements is “not my job,” Wallace explained. “I don’t view my role as truth-squading.”
NBC’s Matt Lauer took a similar approach at a recent forum in which he interviewed Clinton and Trump separately before a live audience. Lauer was widely panned for, among other things, not fact-checking Trump’s misstatement that he’d been against the Iraq War from the outset.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, speaking Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week, called on Holt to fact-check Trump at tonight’s debate. “All that we’re asking is that if Donald Trump lies, that it’s pointed out,” said Mook.
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway responded, telling ABC, “I really don’t appreciate campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact-checkers.”
That’s the CPD’s position as well. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica,” CPD executive director Janet Brown told CNN.
Who’s in the Audience?
At tonight’s debate, Clinton and Trump are even using the audience to throw each other off.
The Clinton campaign offered a front row seat to Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Cuban then took to Twitter to taunt Trump, with whom he has a long-running feud.
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) September 23, 2016
Trump responded by threatening to invite Gennifer Flowers, who had an affair with Bill Clinton in the 1980s. Flowers accepted, but the Trump campaign now says she wasn’t officially asked, and it’s unclear if she’ll be attending.
If dopey Mark Cuban of failed Benefactor fame wants to sit in the front row, perhaps I will put Gennifer Flowers right alongside of him!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2016
(This drama will likely get at least as much media attention ahead of tonight’s debate as issues like global warming, U.S. militarism and incarceration.)
“The county,” writes the Long Island Press, “is preparing for an excess of 10,000 demonstrators.”
This may well happen. Different groups and causes are converging on debate host Hofstra University. After all, Trump and Clinton are the most disliked major party nominees in recent history.
More than 1,500 fast food workers will be protesting outside the debate to call for a $15 an hour minimum wage, a union organizer told the Daily News.
A coalition of education activists and civil rights groups plans to bring thousands to protest “cuts in public education and the impact on students of color.”
Libertarians will be outside protesting Gary Johnson’s exclusion from the stage.
And Greens may engage in civil disobedience in an attempt to “escort” Jill Stein into the debate. (At the 2012 Obama-Romney debate at Hofstra, both Stein and Green vice-presidential candidate Cheri Honkala were arrested, then shackled to chairs for eight hours.)
Keeping this dissatisfaction away from the debate auditorium will be cops, who are expected to number more than a thousand.
Protesters will be put in “Free Speech” zones, explained the local police commissioner, who plans to put protesters with opposing views in separate areas.
How to Watch
The debate runs from 9-10:30 p.m. (EST), without commercials. It’s being broadcast live on all the major networks, several cable stations, and is widely available online.
The Presidential debate will be on so many channels it's viewership may top the Super Bowl…#ItsMy2Cents
— Larry King (@kingsthings) September 26, 2016