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The presidential debates beginning Monday could be the most-watched in history. Affan Chowdhry guides you through the genre, characters, plot and episodes – and the debate stage dos and don'ts for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as they aim to break open a deadlocked race

Follow our live coverage of the first debate.

Illustration by Matthew French

Reality television has never quite seen anything like The Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Show: near-fainting spells, sudden jaunts to hated Mexico, charges of bigotry and sexism, and an overall toxicity that far exceeds your typical U.S. presidential race.

Monday night, the show kicks off its finale – three live debates over the autumn that will grip tens of millions of viewers worldwide and provide a televised spectacle as two of the most unpopular and controversial presidential candidates share the same stage and slug it out.

When it's all over, voters will march to polling stations on Nov. 8 and vote one of them into the White House.

As you sit down to watch what will likely be some of the most-watched debates in history, here is your viewers guide to the genre, the characters, the plot lines and what to watch for in the Trump-Clinton face-off.

Related: Live updates from the first presidential debate

The genre: Born in 1960

The first ever televised presidential debate takes place on Sept. 26, 1960, in Chicago. Exactly 56 years after the historic Richard Nixon-John F. Kennedy encounter, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take the stage.

The first televised presidential debate takes place on Sept. 26, 1960, in Chicago. Exactly 56 years after the historic Richard Nixon-John F. Kennedy encounter, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will debate.


With the emergence of the television age in the 1950s came the first set of presidential debates.

The four debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election gave Mr. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, the edge. As one debate producer later recalled, Mr. Nixon had the on-camera appearance of "death warmed over."

The presidential debates would skip the 1964, 1968 and 1972 elections and return in 1976 before a studio audience. They have remained a fixture ever since.

Richard Nixon dabs at his chin and lip in Los Angeles during his televised debate with John F. Kennedy, who was in a studio in New York. PHOTO: AP

In 2016, there are three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate scheduled.

According to Alan Schroeder, professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, the debates are a cornerstone of U.S. politics for two reasons.

First of all, the debates come late in the marathon election cycle and at a point when the general electorate is paying closer attention to the choice they must make on voting day in November. Secondly, they force the candidates to give up control and step away from the choreographed contexts on the campaign trail in front of adoring crowds.

"So the candidates don't like to do [debates] because it's risky and because they have to sort of throw caution to the wind the minute the debate begins and roll with the punches," said Prof. Schroeder.

Members of the audience watch the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 at the University of Denver.

Members of the audience watch the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 at the University of Denver.


Who's watching and how

The audience is expected to exceed the 46.2 million households, or the estimated 67.2 million viewers, that watched the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney four years ago.

To put those 2012 debate numbers into context, they are about double the audiences that watched the last nights of the Democratic and Republican party conventions.

But the debates are by no means the live TV event of the year: 111 million people in the U.S. watched the Super Bowl that year.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, right, shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the end of the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate in Denver, Oct. 3, 2012.

Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands at the end of the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate. Mr. Obama would later poke fun at his debate performance.

Michael Reynolds/Pool/REUTERS

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The characters

Donald Trump

  • Age: 70
  • Experience: Real-estate billionaire and TV showman
  • Debate experience: 12 Republican debates in 2015 and 2016
  • Debate style: Prickly; combative; dismissive; unprepared

Hillary Clinton

  • Age: 68
  • Experience: U.S. Secretary of State; U.S. Senator; first lady
  • Debate experience: Dozens of debates going back to her 2000 and 2006 Senate races and her 2008 and 2016 presidential bids
  • Debate style: Methodical as a lawyer; versed like a policy wonk; a seasoned debater

A group of retired seniors gathers at an assisted living residence in Maryland to watch the final presidential debate of 2008 between Barack Obama and John McCain.

A group of retired seniors gathers at an assisted living residence in Maryland to watch the final presidential debate of 2008 between Barack Obama and John McCain.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The 'episodes'

Each debate starts at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, lasts 90 minutes without commercial breaks and takes place in front of a live audience that is advised not to interrupt with applause, laughter or jeering.

Audience tickets are given to each political party and the university hosting the debate. The universities generally use a lottery system open to students. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which schedules and oversees the general election debates, also hands out some tickets.

For the second presidential debate, the audience is made up of uncommitted voters picked by the Gallup polling firm. Some of those audience members will be selected to ask questions in the town-hall format.

Episode 1: First contact

The much-anticipated moment when the two rivals first appear together on stage Monday takes place at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

The format will be six 15-minute segments on major topics, which were announced on Sept. 19: "America's Direction," "Achieving Prosperity" and "Securing America."

The moderator will be NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, who has grilled Mr. Trump in the past during interviews.

The rules state that each segment will open with a question from the moderator and allow each candidate two minutes to respond, after which candidates can debate each other. The moderator can also explore the topic in greater detail.

Episode 2: The voters speak

The second presidential debate on Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., will allow voters to put questions to the candidates.

The setting provides a chance for Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton to speak directly to ordinary Americans. The goal: to demonstrate empathy.

The format will see half of the questions come from an audience that is made up of undecided voters selected by the polling firm Gallup. The balance of questions will cover a broad range of issues, draw on social media and come from the moderators, CNN's Anderson Cooper and ABC's chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz.

Episode 3: Last chance

The third and final debate on Oct. 19 takes place at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. With voting just weeks away, it is the last chance candidates have to lock in supporters and motivate them to show up election day.

It may also be tinged with some desperation – as candidates make their closing arguments in what could be a very tight race in the homestretch.

The final debate will follow the same rules and format as the first debate.

It will also be a historic moment for the conservative-leaning, Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News network: the first time one of its journalists moderates a presidential debate. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace will be moderating.

Bonus episode: The undercard

The last time a vice-presidential debate was the subject of widespread buzz and a record number of viewers was eight years ago. There is nothing quite like Sarah Palin this time around – at least when it comes to vice-presidential candidates.

The safe picks in 2016 are Trump running-mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, and Clinton running-mate, Senator Tim Kaine.

Only the true political junkie will tune in to the Oct. 4 debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.

But if you must: the debate will consist of nine 10-minute segments that start with an opening question and each candidate speaking up to two minutes. After each candidate has had a chance to answer the question, the moderator, CBSN anchor Elaine Quijano, can explore the topic in greater depth.

A couple of firsts worth mentioning: Ms. Quijano is the first Asian-American to host a general election debate; and the streaming service of CBS News, CBSN, is the first digital channel to be awarded a big debate.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and husband Todd watch the final 2008 presidential debate. Weeks earlier, Ms. Palin appeared in the most widely-watched vice-presidential debate in history.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and husband Todd watch the final 2008 presidential debate. Weeks earlier, Ms. Palin appeared in the most widely-watched vice-presidential debate in history.


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Clinton: Trump should apologize for “birther” claims


The plot

Polling in September points to a tightening of the presidential race.

Presidential debates historically confirm the decisions that voters have already made about which candidate they are going to support.

But in close races, the debates can affect the outcome of the election, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Pennsylvania.

"This may be one of those years in which the debates are helping to shape the outcome because you not only have a high number of undecided voters relative to the past, but you also have a high number of disaffected voters," she said.

That introduces a unique dynamic in this election cycle: disaffected voters may end up passing on both Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton after watching them in the debates and opting for the Green Party or Libertarian Party candidates.

Add to the plot several ongoing controversies plaguing both candidates.

On Ms. Clinton's side: secrecy around her health problems; her reference to Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables"; lingering questions around her use of a private e-mail server.

On Mr. Trump's side: allegations of irregularities at the Trump charitable foundation; allegations of fraud at the failed Trump University; his hard-line comments on illegal immigration.

Trump: Obama is American, blames Clinton for “birther” controversy


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Hillary Clinton speaks during the Black Women's Agenda's 29th Annual Symposium after taking some time off to recover from pneumonia.

Hillary Clinton speaks during the Black Women’s Agenda’s 29th Annual Symposium after taking some time off to recover from pneumonia.


Dos and Don'ts: Hillary Clinton

Each candidate will have a strategy going in to the televised debates – and the strategy will likely shift from one debate to another. But, broadly speaking, here is a list of dos and don'ts for each candidate, gleaned from conversations with experts. Let's start with the Ms. Clinton.

1. Do not be dismissive

The presidential debates will be a historic moment – the first time a female U.S. presidential candidate takes the stage. Ms. Clinton is acutely aware of how gender dynamics can play out on the campaign trail, as she recently told the blog Humans of New York.

I’ll go to these events and there will be men speaking before me, and they’ll be pounding the message, and screaming about how we need to win the election. And people will love it.
And I want to do the same thing. Because I care about this stuff. But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation.

The reason is simple, according to Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.

If women get excited or passionate about something, it can be seen as if they are unstable. Why is she screaming? Why is she yelling at me? She seems out of control.

How Ms. Clinton handles Mr. Trump's likely debate stage zingers will be another navigation of the minefield of gender dynamics that female politicians face, says Prof. Dittmar.

You want to counter him on substance and not be dismissive of him in a way that might resonate in all different ways, but for women in particular, may come across as ‘bitchy.’

2. Do try and needle your opponent

One of the biggest challenges facing Ms. Clinton is how to expose her rival on the debate stage on the temperament question, according to Prof. Dittmar.

Hillary Clinton has now made this the cornerstone of her argument against Donald Trump – that he’s temperamentally unfit to be president. So will that come out [and how] will she try to demonstrate that?

There is one way to get under Mr. Trump's skin.

Last year, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and presidential candidate Carly Fiorina attacked Mr. Trump's business record, mountains of debt and casino bankruptcies.

The underlying critique was that Mr. Trump uses other peoples' money at failed business not unlike how politicians use public money to create bad government programs.

Mr. Trump bristled at the allegations. But in that exchange is an important clue, according to Northeastern University's Prof. Schroeder.

She was the only person among all those Republicans who was able to needle Trump and did not seem intimidated by him. And I think the Clinton people will be looking at [the] Carly Fiorina example very closely.
I think they’re going to be trying to identify what is his soft underbelly. How do you poke at that?

3. Do improvise

The Democratic presidential candidate is an expert debater and can avoid appearing robotic while rolling with the punches, according to Prof. Schroeder.

There’s this great quote from Bill Clinton who likened presidential debates to playing jazz. He said, there’s a melody line and you’ve got to remember what that melody line is and you need to play the song enough that people are able to recognize what it is.
But you also need to be able to riff, and you also need to have some fun with it, and I think Hillary does do that.

Improvising carries its own risk – one that is amplified in the presidential debate setting when the audience is about eight times bigger than the average eight million who tuned in when she went up against Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

4. Do connect with ordinary voters

Ms. Clinton's attributes when it comes to debating on live television are numerous, according to the University of Pennsylvania's Prof. Jamieson.

Hillary Clinton is an extremely strong debater. If the standard for debate is capacity to engage in argument quickly with apt evidence, she’s got a lawyer’s instinct to go for the core of an issue and she’s got a very strong command of policy detail.

But in that strength is also a weakness that translates into an inability sometimes to connect with audiences, added Prof. Jamieson.

Traditionally her weakness has been that she’s not as comfortable offering examples from real life that make the policies seem visualisable and translate the policy into the ordinary experiences of the audiences. She’s got better at it, but she’s not a natural at it.

5. Do not forget Trump's own words

An effective debate strategy for Ms. Clinton could lie in the power of Mr. Trump's own words.

On the campaign trail, the Democratic candidate has used the strategy effectively, according to Rutgers University's Prof. Dittmar.

You’ve seen that from the Clinton campaign, where she says: ‘Look I don’t need to imply anything, I’ll just read his words. I’ll read what he said or tweeted and let you decide for yourself.

In a debate setting, forcing Mr. Trump to respond to his most incendiary comments about women, Mexicans and Muslims could be a smart low-risk strategy, she added.

But there is one pitfall: Ms. Clinton could come across as too focused on tearing down her rival rather than building herself up, said Prof. Dittmar.

To the extent that you can paint him as the worst candidate, you also have to make the case for why you are the best candidate. You have to balance that throughout the debates and in the campaign messaging.
If you’re going to call him out for sexism, then the pivot is: ‘Here is my history. … Here are the policies that are going to help women.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives in New York on Sept. 16 to attend a fundraiser and tape a segment with The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives in New York on Sept. 16 to attend a fundraiser and tape a segment with The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.


Donald Trump gestures to supporters as he departs a campaign rally in Clive, Iowa, on Sept. 13.

Donald Trump gestures to supporters as he departs a campaign rally in Clive, Iowa, on Sept. 13.


Dos and Don'ts: Donald Trump

1. Do your prep

There is nothing as important as doing your homework when it comes debate preparation.

Mitt Romney set a record four years ago when he took part in 16 complete, start-to-finish mock debates, according to Northeastern University's Prof. Schroeder.

It paid off: Mr. Romney trounced President Barack Obama in the first debate. The White House incumbent was widely seen as flat and lacklustre against an enthusiastic and forceful challenger. But one strong debate performance was not enough to oust Mr. Obama on election day.

According to several U.S. media reports, Mr. Trump is following an unconventional debate prep regimen: no mock debates or thick binders to go over. Instead, Mr. Trump holds conversations with senior aides and exudes typical Trumpian overconfidence.

It could well be a head fake. But if it is true, Mr. Trump is on treacherous ground. In the past, has shown incomplete understanding of U.S.-China trade policy and details of the nuclear defence triad, said Prof. Jamieson.

There just seem to be very large gaps in what he knows. So the question is can they get him up to speed on those? Two or three serious errors about consequential matters that speak to the presidency could disqualify his candidacy in a debate.

Early Republican primary debates had 10 people on stage at a time. A candidate would be lucky if he or she commanded more than 10 minutes in a 90-minute debate. The presidential debates will test Mr. Trump's stamina for lengthy exchanges, said Prof. Schroeder.

With Trump it just seems to be whatever pops into his head in the moment, which might work if you’re delivering five to 10 minutes worth of material.
But when you’re up there for 90 minutes, any lack of substantive preparation is going to become apparent quite quickly and the reaction is pretty unforgiving especially in an age of social media where people and the press are reacting to the debate in real time.

2. Do stay in your lane

In her 2000 U.S. Senate race, Hillary Clinton faced her Republican opponent in a televised debate.

At one point, Rick Lazio walked over to where Ms. Clinton was standing with a piece of paper and asked her to sign a pledge against soft money in political campaigns.

The move backfired, said Rutgers University's Prof. Dittmar.

In political practitioner world, that’s a big no-no for male candidates. Don’t look so aggressive directly to the woman candidate. And not that you can’t attack her and rebut her policy issues, but that getting into her personal space really had a backlash effect for Rick Lazio.

3. Do not lie

It is a pretty basic rule.

But Mr. Trump has routinely played with the truth. For example, he has claimed that he opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That is widely seen as untrue, according to independent fact-checkers.

During the debate, there will be several layers of fact-checking.

Past presidential debate moderators have rarely stepped in to set the record straight and there is ongoing discussion about the role of moderators.

Expect Ms. Clinton to keep her rival honest. Also, look to the news organizations and cable networks to play a more robust fact-checking role, said University of Pennsylvania's Prof. Jamieson.

There’s a high level of fact-checking this year. You’re actually seeing the broadcast and cable networks fact-checking in real time by putting corrections up on the screen sometimes as the candidates are speaking.
Because there is so much fact-checking this year, the possibility that a reporter comes into the debate with a check sheet of all the things that a candidate has said in the past that are false and as a result [goes] after them in the immediate post-debate coverage is very high.

4. Do not let her get under your skin

Mr. Trump's maxim is: If you get hit, hit back.

That is what he demonstrated during more than a dozen Republican primary debates.

Ms. Clinton's aim in the presidential debates is to get Mr. Trump to commit an error by pressing him on immigration, the campaign's ties to racist groups, his business bankruptcies, and allegations of fraud at Trump University.

Trump surrogates such as former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich are advising Mr. Trump not to let his rival get under his skin.

Under the spotlights, extreme pressure and goading by Ms. Clinton, viewers will be closely watching how Mr. Trump behaves. After all, that is one key function of presidential debates, said Prof. Schroeder.

It is a moment of extreme pressure. Do they seem at ease with it? Are they able to have a kind of relaxed style? Are they able to joke around? Or do they get nervous? Do they lapse in to robot mode?

With Mr. Trump, there is another question to consider: Does he lash out when confronted?

5. Do not be rude

Donald Trump can get rattled on the debate stage.

During Republican primary debates over the winter, he routinely used schoolyard taunts to refer to his rivals on live television as "Little Marco" (about Marco Rubio) and "Lyin' Ted" (about Ted Cruz).

The presidential debates are a completely different setting, explained Prof. Schroeder.

What works is finding the sweet spot in terms of being aggressive toward your opponent without crossing the line into rudeness. I think that will be a difficult challenge for Trump.
What we want to see in a president – knowing that much of the president’s job is to be the diplomatic face of the country – is how well does a person protect their self-interest without clubbing the other person over the head.

6. Do remember what you're auditioning for

There is a lot of focus on winning the debates. Often, the emphasis ends up on the stumbles and zingers that happen on the debate stage.

According to Prof. Jamieson, there is a more fundamental question at the heart of the presidential debates: What do the candidates need to show in order to demonstrate their capacity to govern and their worthiness of the presidency?

Rolled up in that question are issues of their vision for the country, knowledge of governance and foreign policy, honesty and trustworthiness, she explained.

In general, their performances in debates is validating for people who already support them. So in general, candidates appear knowledgeable, in general candidates are accurate in debates, in general they appear thoughtful in debates. This year may be the exception. The question is: What does Donald Trump do in a debate?

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Donald Trump attends a church service in Detroit on Sept. 3.

Donald Trump attends a church service in Detroit on Sept. 3.


The after show

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton is hugged by his wife Hillary and kissed by his daughter Chelsea after the final presidential debate in 1992. PHOTO: DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images

After each presidential debate, there will be the requisite parade of campaign surrogates, pundits and correspondents.

The object of the game is to spin the debates in favour of one candidate or another. This is where the real entertainment begins.

Clips of zingers and flubs will be widely shared on social media and become the subject of late-night comedy.

Viewers may have their own assessments of the debates. But when it comes down to it, they routinely look to the so-called experts for how the outcome is framed.

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