5 Things to Watch for at the Final Presidential Debate

Ted Johnson
Variety

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off in the third and final presidential debate on Wednesday — and that is either a good or bad thing.

It could be a good thing because it’ll be one more chance to actually see whether they come out on the issues, which is, after all, the reason that there are debates in the first place. The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced that the topics of their final face off will be debt and entitlements, immigration, the economy, the Supreme Court, foreign hot spots, and fitness to be president.

It could be a bad thing because, if the first two debates are any guide, it’s unlikely that viewers will come away thinking this has been some great, informational exercise in democracy. Rather, the debates so far have been so full of outlandish moments that are a goldmine for “Saturday Night Live” and late-night satire.

Just the presence of “fitness to be president” among the topics all but invites acrimonious exchanges between Clinton and Trump. Last time the pressing drama was whether Trump would bring up Bill Clinton’s past (he did); this time, he’s already suggested that she’s been taking performance-enhancing drugs. Will he challenge her to take a drug test on the spot?

Here’s what to look out for at the debate, which begins at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday and airs live from the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Chris Wallace. For the first time, a Fox News personality will be moderating a general election presidential debate. Undoubtedly, progressives will keep a close eye on what questions he asks and the extent to which he fact checks. “If people say, ‘it was a great debate and I don’t remember you being there,’ I will have done my job,” said Wallace told Fox News this week. But despite efforts by the progressive group Media Matters for America to get the commission to reconsider him, Wallace actually has a history of aggressive followup questions to Trump and Clinton. Expect plenty of outcry from either side if Wallace is a mere shrinking violet.

‘Rigged’ Election. Trump’s claim that the election is “rigged” against him, and that there is a media collusion with Hillary Clinton to hand the election her way, has triggered alarm that were he to lose, he would not concede, or that there will be disruption on Election Day. President Obama on Tuesday mocked Trump’s attacks on the voting process, while plenty of journalists have pointed out just how difficult it would be to organize a conspiracy to game the results, and how relatively few cases there have been recently of voter fraud. If Wallace doesn’t ask the question, Clinton probably will, in keeping with her strategy to question Trump’s temperament. But this also will be a national platform for Trump to spread that message, as he has at his campaign rallies, as he pursues an increasingly us-against-them strategy, even if it means characterizing non-partisan government institutions as being part of the corrupt elite establishment.

The Emails. At the first debate, Clinton gave a succinct apology over her handling of State Department emails. At the second, she went into a bit more detail over what she knew about classification. It’s likely that it will come up again, what with the FBI’s latest release of interview notes from their investigation into her use of a private server. What has triggered alarms is the use of the phrase “quid pro quo” in the notes to describe a State Department official’s request to the FBI to declassify one of the emails on her server. Trump has cited the document as proof that her campaign was in collusion with the State Department and the FBI to avoid prosecution — although there is no evidence of that. The FBI and the State Department deny that some kind of exchange was ever even offered. The Clinton campaign has characterized it as a relatively common dispute between two government bureaucracies over classification. Still, the onus will be on Clinton to explain that in a simple way — as well as to respond to almost certain Trump attacks based on the steady stream of WikiLeaks releases from hacked emails from her campaign.

Climate change. The past few days have seen a flurry of groups lobbying for their questions to be asked in the debate, and a topic that so far hasn’t been broached is any query about climate change. Given the priority it has been with the current administration, it’d be a glaring oversight, particularly since there are wide gulfs between the Clinton and Trump positions.

One group, the Open Debate Coalition, pressed the moderators of the second debate, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, to draw from a list of debate questions that were submitted and voted on by the public. Although Raddatz asked one of their questions, about a WikiLeaks release, they did not ask their top question, “Would you support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales?” Undaunted, two of the coalition members, Adam Green and Grover Norquist, visited Wallace last week to urge him to ask the top queries.

The Audience. At the second debate, Trump not only invited four of Bill Clinton’s accusers to sit in the audience, but he also held a pre-debate press conference with the women 90 minutes before it was to begin.

Several news outlets reported on Tuesday that Trump would be bringing Obama’s half brother Malik, a Trump supporter, to the third debate. The announcement came just hours after Obama said at a press conference that Trump should “stop whining.”

“I have never seen in my lifetime or in modern political history, any presidential candidate trying to discredit the elections and the election process before votes have even taken place,” Obama said.

It’ll be another stunt, and perhaps part of Trump’s legacy whether he wins or loses — new attention to who participants invite to the debate, whether to throw off their opponent or to make a point during the event itself.

As for the rest of the audience — viewers — the question is whether this debate will approach the hefty numbers of the first two. There was a big drop off in ratings from the first debate to the second: 84 million viewers to 67 million, according to Nielsen averages. In 2012, the audience for the debates between Obama and Mitt Romney gradually dropped off, from first to third. But that was a relatively tame race compared to this one, and a significant fall off in ratings could signal just how much Americans are turned off by the hyper negative campaign.

This may be the last debate between Clinton and Trump, but it won’t be their final meeting before the election. On Thursday, they are both scheduled to attend the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York — an event that has in the past been an opportunity for presidential candidates to engage in some friendly quips about the other. We’ll see how that comes off this time around.

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