On Sunday night, the winner of the debate was Donald Trump.
Don’t get me wrong. I think he did horribly. But in politics, it doesn’t matter what you and I think. What truly matters is what “they” think. The “they” I’m referring to are the undecided voters who were watching. Those are the people who ultimately make a difference come election day. With less than a month left, this debate was good for Trump.
Let’s be honest: many undecided voters were probably not focused on Clinton on Sunday night. After the bombshell release of Trump’s lewd conversation that came out over the weekend, all the focus was on him. With this in mind, he was able to accomplish 2 things.
First, he apologized for his awful remarks in 2005, attacked Hillary for her treatment of Bill’s victims, and then they both moved on. For undecided voters watching, this may have put them back on equal footing for the rest of the night.
Second, Trump stayed on message and put Clinton on the defensive about her emails. On multiple occasions, he was able to pivot back to his two central claims: that Hillary has “bad judgement” and that she is a “typical politician.”
The one spot which might damage him with the undecideds was his bumbling on foreign policy. He didn’t actually answer Anderson Cooper’s question on how to handle the situation in Syria (which Cooper pointed out). Furthermore, Trump acknowledged that he disagrees with Mike Pence on the matter. Time will tell how this was taken, but he seemed very shaky.
Otherwise, Trump came prepared. He had some well-timed zingers. Of course, his constant moving around was distracting, but I don’t think that will really affect his numbers.
As for Clinton, she dodged the accusations on emails in a way only a Clinton can. She’s really gotten quite good at it. She remained on message, but that’s only to be expected. After all, she’s done over 30 debates and has been effectively branded as a “career politician”.
Despite her generally lackluster style, I don’t think she changed minds or hurt herself in a significant way. She maintained her lead.
If her campaign really wanted to hurt Trump, I think she should have cancelled the debate after this weekend’s revelations. She would have been able to cite the chorus of republicans finally jumping ship and further delegitimize Trump as a candidate. Trump did so in the Republican primary and it didn’t hurt him. I think she would have been able to as well.
Trump came in with two goals: 1. Moving the conversation away from the leaked video 2. Give a coherent message and put Clinton on the defensive. Clinton came in with the goal of hammering Trump on his fitness to lead and maintaining her lead.
For the audience they were aiming at, it’s safe to say Trump accomplished both. It doesn’t matter if Clinton accomplished her goals or not. Considering all her baggage and the public’s perception, her lead is largely contingent on how much Trump hurts himself. Because of this paradigm, undecided voters are not focused on her. They are mostly focused on him.
On a personal note, there wasn’t much to smile about other than Trump’s line about “the late, great Abraham Lincoln.” I liked Trump’s answer on energy and on how he admired Hillary Clinton’s tenacity. I think Clinton handled the debate well and effectively countered Trump’s use of her 30 years in public service.Otherwise, it was a typical, vacuous debate with loose strands of substance here and there.
Cruz or Rubio…really, anyone else, would be far ahead of her right now. But that’s for another post.