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September 27, 2016

How Philly mayor avoided debate split-screen woes that rattled Trump

Many things can be said about Monday night’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and – hoo boy – so many of them have been, and will continue to be, said on loop in 24/7-newsmerica.

Let's focus on a single aspect of that 90-minute extravaganza, though. Specifically, the split-screen camera angle to which the candidates were subjected. Even more specifically, the fact that it did Trump exactly zero favors.

The New York Times, a constant target of the Republican candidate, explained it as such:

The split screen told the story at the first 2016 presidential debate, and it was not kind to Donald J. Trump.

At the right was his opponent, Hillary Clinton, a practiced one-on-one debater, who held long, studied gazes on her opponent, delivered calibrated attacks and turned to the audience to smile incredulously at his responses.

At the left was Mr. Trump, the volatile presence who alpha-dogged a season of Republican debates. Now he grimaced, squinted, nodded, pursed his lips, sniffed, huffed and interrupted, becoming, over the night, an agitated man in a box. …

It was Tony Soprano vs. Dr. Melfi, TV’s biggest antihero blustering against the woman who had gotten inside his head.

They, and I, were not alone in thinking this. To wit:

While not as damaging as, say, Richard Nixon becoming a sweat fountain while debating John F. Kennedy in 1960, the contrast brought about by seeing one candidate react while the other spoke certainly worked in Hillary’s favor to the point of it matching a popular meme from “The Office."

Still, we can’t know whether that contrast will have an impact in the race, or even beyond the second debate, scheduled for Oct. 9 in St. Louis.

The split-screen presentation, you may remember, played a part in the cancellation of a Philadelphia mayoral debate just last year.

It was general election season when Democratic primary late-entrant/ultimate winner Jim Kenney faced newly minted Republican Melissa Murray Bailey for the right to take over the second floor of City Hall.

For a deep dive on the camera issue, here’s a link to a story I wrote when word broke of the NBC10 debate cancellation last August. But it boiled down to this quote from Kenney's then-campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt:

"We felt that particular close-up made it too 'him versus her.’ The whole goal of these debates was to focus on the issues, not the horse race."

Sound familiar?

There are a few differences at play here, though.

That race was nowhere near as close as the current presidential campaign, so Kenney had a lot to lose and nothing to gain from participating in a debate where a stray shot of him looking agitated could unnecessarily become a talking point. It wouldn’t have cost him the race, of course; the margin was way too wide for that in a deep-blue city. But still, it was a chance not worth taking.

I talked to Hitt, now Kenney’s communications director, on Tuesday morning to ask whether they were trying to avoid all that befell Trump thanks to the split-screen. 

She didn’t seem too worried about Kenney making goofy faces while awaiting his turn to answer.

“Regardless of the gender of person you’re running against, having a split screen means neither candidate gets a break,” she said. “They have to be on the full 90 minutes. That’s hard for anyone to do, and there’s the potential that they’ll look tired, not focused or bored [which] increases the more they’re on screen.”

And that is exactly what Trump now faces because of the debate logistics. So don't be surprised if Trump pushes back against split-screen presentation in the remaining debates. 

If he'd have paid attention to the Philly mayoral race, you might not have seen it in the first place.