In an election cycle full of dramatic twists and turns, the first presidential debate will be a game changer for Donald Trump. With the election in the margin of error both nationally and in battleground state polling, Trump's performance will either create a bigger wave of support or disqualify him in the minds of voters.
While Donald Trump is a known entity to voters as a businessman and reality television star, many are still deciding whether he has the temperament and capacity to serve as commander in chief. Just like the Republican primary debates, the first presidential debate is expected to shatter records with an estimated audience of over 100 million people. That means Trump will receive invaluable free advertising after getting heavily outspent by Hillary Clinton for months on radio and television.
The massive viewership also represents an opportunity for Trump to answer lingering questions about his ability to govern as president, which is the biggest obstacle he must overcome with voters. If he is able to demonstrate more than superficial knowledge of the issues and resist Clinton's attempts to bait him, he could create enough momentum to carry him through the election. Alternatively, if he fails to reach those benchmarks, he may not be able to recover.
Trump heads into the debate with lower expectations, which works to his advantage. Clinton is a seasoned debater who has been in the public eye as a politician for decades. As a result of that experience, the news media and voters will expect a more polished candidate on the stage. Clinton and her campaign have also set expectations high by feeding the media stories about mock debates and bringing in psychologists to identify trigger points with Trump. Anything other than a decisive win for Clinton would be viewed as a failure.
Because of the interest in the election cycle and Trump's ability to dominate news cycles, the opportunity to create negative nationwide headlines for Clinton could significantly boost his campaign. Landing hits against Clinton's use of a private email server, the Clinton Foundation, her conduct in the Benghazi affair, her foreign policy or economic failures would mean negative news coverage for the Democrat.
Trump's unpredictability and showmanship also help him. On a big stage, his personality will outshine Clinton's. It has also been reported that the Clinton campaign is undertaking a "forensic-style analysis" of his primary debate performances to catalogue his "strengths and weaknesses." But the only takeaway from those debates is that Trump is completely unpredictable.
Clinton will also face increased scrutiny due to her recent health scare. Just like it did for Richard Nixon in his 1960 debate against John F. Kennedy, any appearance of sickness or weakness could prove detrimental to her candidacy. Coughing fits or the appearance of fatigue could renew questions about her health.
Even though Trump has a lot to gain from the first debate, he also has a lot to lose if he is not careful. Clinton is a policy wonk and will no doubt try to force Trump into his own Gary Johnson "What is Aleppo?" moment. She will also try to bait him into becoming angry and try to paint herself as the victim if he is too bullish. A Gary Johnson moment for Trump or a flash of anger would be detrimental for the 15-20 percent of voters who are still making up their minds about whom to vote for in November.
With only 46 days until the election, the upcoming presidential debate could change everything for Donald Trump.
Lisa Boothe is a contributing columnist for The Washington Examiner and president of High Noon Strategies.