Clinton Beat Trump by Normal Debate Standards, But It’s Not a Normal Year
Thursday, September 29, 2016
The record will show that 16,303 words were uttered in the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Of these, she spoke the most cogent two: “Words matter.”
Clinton’s telegraphic message during the first of three 90-minute debates between the rivals, of course, was that every statement by a president — or a candidate for the office — should be considered, calibrated, and nuanced for possible impacts upon allies, enemies, and world markets. As every schoolchild knows, she argued, Trump clearly fails the traditional prudence test.
But Trump has proved time and again amid 2016’s black-is-white, up-is-down, post-factual campaign of tweets and tantrums that maybe words don’t matter all that much — that prudence and tradition can be overrated political commodities.
Uncle Donald: By now, the highlights and lowlights of the debate have replayed endlessly, and it is clear that, by every customary measure, the former Secretary of State “won” the debate: Among other things, she stayed on the attack while he spent nearly the entire night in a defensive stance; post-debate surveys of undecided voters gave her the victory; she was cool, patient, poised, and precise, as he smirked, steamed, interrupted, and ranted semi-coherently, like your goofy, drunken uncle who won’t pass the gravy at Thanksgiving.
“Trump ostentatiously avoided preparation — playing the proverbial high school slacker drinking beer behind the bleachers while the teacher’s pet was in the library,” wrote Dana Milbank of the Washington Post. “But Monday night was the revenge of the nerd.”
While Clinton remains the betting favorite to become the nation’s first female president, Trump has not gotten to within one step of the White House by playing by time-honored rules.
Ensconced on the Central Coast of deep-blue California, Democrats, liberals, and even members of that endangered species known as the “moderate Republican” may be forgiven for thinking — hoping? — that Trump’s weak debate performance will end his unlikely challenge and hurry Clinton onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
Two Americas: With the country bitterly divided by race, ethnicity, and a host of cultural issues, the most important predictor of voting in November simply is political party: With many previously reluctant Republicans now moving toward Trump, as Clinton struggles to consolidate Obama’s Democratic coalition, the popular vote is, and always was, all but certain to be very close.
Clinton may get a post-debate bounce from her strong showing (fearless forecast: she’ll be up by four or five points by the next debate on October 9), but it won’t be a surprise if the contest quickly reverts to a two- or three-point race. Fun fact: The average winning percentage in presidential elections since 1824 has been 51.36 percent; this year won’t be much different.
Third parties: An unusually high number of voters have yet to make up their minds at this point — about 27 million nationwide, representing as much as 20 percent in some key swing states.
Millions of these are believed to “parking” their preference with Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Jill Stein of the Green Party and may break for Clinton or Trump in the final days before November 8. For now, the third-party dynamic is hurting Clinton more than Trump, surveys show, and she’ll need to capture those voters to have a major victory.
Those damn kids: Trump went into the debate needing to cut into Clinton’s overwhelming advantage among women voters — as much as 16 percent in some polls; it’s hard to imagine he did so, given her reprise of his past sexist bilge, calling women “pigs” and “dogs” and sliming a Latina beauty queen from one of his pageants, who packed on a few pounds, as “Miss Housekeeping.”
Similarly, however, it’s hard to see how Clinton’s performance did much to improve her standing with 18- to 34-year-old millennial voters, many of whom overwhelmingly backed Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders against her and now favor Johnson or Stein.
Bottom line: Clinton won the debate by cuffing Trump consistently with jabs but scored no knockout blow. There was no historically memorable moment to ensure her November triumph.
Not to say she didn’t come close: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts,” she said at one point. At another she assailed his birther views as “this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen.”
It was Trump himself who came closest to a pivotal comment at one point, when he volunteered, “I think my strongest asset maybe by far is my temperament.”
Now there’s a nontraditional argument.