It’s understandable to feel a little exhausted by this seemingly never-ending election season. As one political journalist put it this week, the contest for the White House feels as if it “has been going on since before rocks were invented.” The good news is that with Labor Day in the rearview mirror, the finish line is truly in sight. And later this month, voters will have perhaps the best opportunity yet to truly take the measure of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, at the first presidential debate on Sept. 26. Political scientists have long said that debates don’t move the needle all that much—serving mostly to solidify voters’ support for their preferred candidate. But this race has been anything but ordinary, and even in more typical election years, the debates have led to some surprising stumbles that hurt experienced pols and provided openings to relative newcomers to establish their bona fides.
Richard Nixon, of course, demonstrated the importance of optics when he showed up looking pale and sweaty to face off against the tan and telegenic John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan showed how one zinger can effectively end a contest when he landed a joke about his opponent Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience. Then there were the moments when candidates effectively confirmed voters’ worst suspicions about them, as when Michael Dukakis gave a wooden response to a question about his wife being raped and murdered, or when George H.W. Bush impatiently checked his watch after a voter’s question about the effects of the recession. Hillary Clinton reportedly understands the risk that burying Trump in policy details could leave her looking like a know-it-all Washington wonk. (See Talking Points.) So she’s getting advice from psychology experts on the best way to bait him into blunders. Trump has by all accounts decided to wing it. Stay tuned: The wildest parts of this long, strange election trip are no doubt yet to come.