Tonight's presidential debate employs a "town hall" format, in which candidates take questions from undecided voters in attendance as well as the moderators. But we shouldn't think of the most important audience as the mass public at large. For this debate, the people who will decide the winner are not the average citizens watching in the hall or at home but rather the partisan and media authorities who will determine in the wake of tonight's event whether Donald Trump's campaign is salvageable.
Trump is now in a precarious position. His problem is not only that he has become very likely to lose the presidential race to Clinton but that he is also being judged as toxic to the political fortunes of the larger Republican Party, both on the ballot this November and thereafter. Several Republican congressional candidates in highly competitive races have already distanced themselves from Trump this weekend. But many more party leaders are still nominally Trump supporters, even if they seldom spend much time talking about him.
If the news media collectively decide that Trump has had a poor debate tonight—especially if he is seen as failing to effectively address his Access Hollywood comments—Republican politicians won't wait around until all the polls are in before renouncing him. We can then expect even more denunciations and declarations of non-support in the hours and days after the debate, almost assuring that Trump is damaged further in the eyes of the public as open conflict erupts between the Trump campaign and a growing faction of Republican critics.
A normal presidential candidate would grasp this political reality. He or she would engage in extensive pre-debate preparations with an eye toward reassuring Republican leaders and ensuring that media expectations for a debate performance would be met or exceeded. But Trump is not a normal candidate with normal calculations, and we therefore do not have any particular reason to believe that his behavior tonight will have either the intention or the effect of impressing elite observers in the party or the press. We also have good reason to expect that Hillary Clinton will walk into the debate with the goal of further baiting Trump into sabotaging himself in front of this key audience, putting other Republicans in the awkward position of having to choose sides between Trump's strong supporters and the increasingly anti-Trump larger electorate.
Trump is a man who is capable of surprise, so it's possible that the debate will proceed in an unexpected direction. But regardless of what he says and does tonight, the people whom he needs to impress the most are not regular voters but rather the politicians and media figures who are currently preparing a death watch around his candidacy. We'll know by tomorrow how many defenders Trump has left within the ranks of his own party, and thus whether Trump still stands a chance of avoiding a disastrous final few weeks before the election.