The 400-pound man in the room: Ten takes on the Great Debate.
Good morning Austin:
Here are ten takes on last night’s epic debate, the biggest public spectacle in the history of the planet. The first three are from me.
1. The smart girl won. The bully lost.
TRUMP: And I will tell you, you look at the inner cities — and I just left Detroit, and I just left Philadelphia, and I just — you know, you’ve seen me, I’ve been all over the place. You decided to stay home, and that’s OK. But I will tell you, I’ve been all over. And I’ve met some of the greatest people I’ll ever meet within these communities. And they are very, very upset with what their politicians have told them and what their politicians have done.
CLINTON: I think — I think — I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.
This bully v. smart kid set up is not a slam dunk. Within limits, Americans prefer the bad boy to the goody-goody, or, as in 2000, Straight-C student GWB, to smarty-pants, I-invented-the-Internet, sigh guy Gore.
But Clinton must have rehearsed this to a fare-the-well, because she got the balance just right – presenting herself as someone who was supremely well prepared and carried the confidence of knowing that, without being a condescending prig.
Also – and this is important – Trump was not nearly the bully he had been in many of the Republican debates, and in his oratory toward Clinton to now. It was kind of reassuring and may help Trump by lowering the level of alarm about his possible election, even if he didn’t ring as many bells as his faithful might have liked.
Not only did he not call her Crooked Hillary, but when he first referred to her as Secretary Clinton, he solicitously asked if that was OK with her. (And yeah, I know he interrupted he a lot, but compared to his interactions with Lyin’ Ted and Little Marco …)
TRUMP: Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.
Of course, he couldn’t resist complimenting himself about his restraint.
HOLT: Mr. Trump, could we just take 10 seconds and then we ask the final question…
TRUMP: You know, Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials. Some of it’s said in entertainment. Some of it’s said — somebody who’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.
But you want to know the truth? I was going to say something…
HOLT: Please very quickly.
TRUMP: … extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.” But she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many of which are absolutely untrue. They’re untrue. And they’re misrepresentations.
And I will tell you this, Lester: It’s not nice. And I don’t deserve that.
But it’s certainly not a nice thing that she’s done. It’s hundreds of millions of ads. And the only gratifying thing is, I saw the polls come in today, and with all of that money…
Trump was referring to going after Bill Clinton for his treatment of women, but, at least last night, Trump chose not to go all Roger Stone/Robert Morrow The Clinton’s War on Women on her.
2. Trump might go gentle into that good night.
This is along the same lines of Trump appearing less dangerous and fringe than he sometimes appears, but also less like a guy with the momentum on his side, as he had appeared going into the debate but, I think, not coming out of it.
He once again said something almost offhandedly suggesting that maybe he doesn’t expect, and maybe never expected, to get elected president and it’s not that big a deal, that for him, the difference between building a new hotel and being the Leader of the Free World is sort of six of one, half-dozen of the other.
TRUMP: Now, if you want to change the laws, you’ve been there a long time, change the laws. But I take advantage of the laws of the nation because I’m running a company. My obligation right now is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do.
But what she doesn’t say is that tens of thousands of people that are unbelievably happy and that love me. I’ll give you an example. We’re just opening up on Pennsylvania Avenue right next to the White House, so if I don’t get there one way, I’m going to get to Pennsylvania Avenue another.
But we’re opening the Old Post Office. Under budget, ahead of schedule, saved tremendous money. I’m a year ahead of schedule. And that’s what this country should be doing.
Again, Trump came off as less fearsome, less paranoid, less troubling than he sometimes does, which may help him with some voters or lead others to wonder whether the thrill is gone.
HOLT: One of you will not win this election. So my final question to you tonight, are you willing to accept the outcome as the will of the voters? Secretary Clinton?
CLINTON: Well, I support our democracy. And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I certainly will support the outcome of this election.
And I know Donald’s trying very hard to plant doubts about it, but I hope the people out there understand: This election’s really up to you. It’s not about us so much as it is about you and your families and the kind of country and future you want. So I sure hope you will get out and vote as though your future depended on it, because I think it does.
HOLT: Mr. Trump, very quickly, same question. Will you accept the outcome as the will of the voters?
TRUMP: I want to make America great again. We are a nation that is seriously troubled. We’re losing our jobs. People are pouring into our country.
The other day, we were deporting 800 people. And perhaps they passed the wrong button, they pressed the wrong button, or perhaps worse than that, it was corruption, but these people that we were going to deport for good reason ended up becoming citizens. Ended up becoming citizens. And it was 800. And now it turns out it might be 1,800, and they don’t even know.
HOLT: Will you accept the outcome of the election?
TRUMP: Look, here’s the story. I want to make America great again. I’m going to be able to do it. I don’t believe Hillary will. The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her.
HOLT: All right. Well, that is going to do it for us. That concludes our debate for this evening, a spirit one. We covered a lot of ground, not everything as I suspected we would.
3. How does a 400-pound man look slim? Sit next to the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Easily my favorite moment of the debate, in a conversation about whether the Russians are responsible for cyber attacks on the U.S.
TRUMP: As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not. I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?
4. His squirming, snorting, and stink eye didn’t compare well with her poker face
From Adam Schiffer, political scientist, Texas Christian University.
This format was a bad fit for Trump.
His lack of policy knowledge is more noticeable with fewer candidates on stage. Once you’ve said “jobs are leaving” a dozen times, it grows stale.
His squirming, snorting, and stink eye didn’t compare well with her poker face. She was unflappable.
Incessant interrupting doesn’t work in a one-on-one debate, and will provide fresh video for gender-studies classes all over the country.
Trump’s best moments were when he highlighted his role as the change candidate, running against the status quo. But there were far too few of those to make that message stick.
Clinton began with a Clintonesque (both of them) laundry list of policy priorities, but generally didn’t get bogged down in obscure details. Her best moments were when she discussed the racial divide, one of many issues for which her lifetime of engagement with politics gave her a formidable advantage over someone who is just learning.
In any other year, this would be called one of the most lopsided debates ever. But it will be interesting to see what narrative emerges in this polarized, media-frenzied environment, where the only news-judgment value on cable is ensuring campaign surrogates get equal time to spin.
5. She won the big moments.
From Kirby Goidel, professor in the Department of Communication and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University.
For the first 15-20 minutes or so, Trump effectively used interruptions to keep Clinton from really getting into any sustained argument. As the debate wore on though, Clinton maintained her composure, avoided becoming frustrated, and put Trump on the defensive. She also won the big moments, especially the birther exchange and then working in his negative comments about women at the very end.
Before the debate, I thought she needed to not get frustrated (Al Gore in 2000), to appear prepared and presidential, and, ideally, to really connect with voters. I am not sure she really connected but – to quote Meatloaf – 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.
Trump, in contrast, I thought might win with a one-liner or by appearing more presidential. I don’t think he scored on either point. He was the same Trump, often rude and overbearing, and he was on the defensive throughout the night. After the first segment, he spent most of his time explaining.
Finally, I think he’ll take yet another hit after the post debate fact checkers do their work.
That said, I don’t know that this will change much, so maybe it wasn’t a Clinton knockout but she definitely won on points and it wasn’t a split decision.
6. Neither came off as a good politician.
From Brandon Rottinghaus, political scientist. University of Houston.
Both candidates hit their marks but Trump chased too many non-sequiturs to qualify for the win.
Clinton outlined a broad vision sprinkled with competency while Trump took to challenge her right away on trade and economic issues. He made law and order a part of the campaign reminiscent of Nixon’s 1968 strategy. This is important because he needs to solidify the white vote, especially in the South.
Polite disagreement lasted about 10 minutes before it turned ugly. Oddly, Trump didn’t throw the first punch which was expected. He kept his temperament in check for most of the debate but responded to a few taunts from Clinton.
Both candidates were more wonky than warm, and both failed to connect to the people in a direct way. Neither came off as a good politician. It felt like both were talking to their base to gin them up rather than talking to undecided voters.
Trump pivoted on the tax return issue to Clinton’s email issue which was smart because if he can bring her trust numbers down to his low range. The flurry of late debate interactions on Trump’s name calling gave Clinton a strong note on to end.
As the challenger, Trump’s demeanor felt more appropriate than expected from the temperamental Trump we often see on Twitter. He was animated but it more often came off as passion instead of contrarian. Clinton appeared rehearsed but polished.
7. What gets said in the next couple days may be more important than what was said tonight.
From David Redlawsk, political scientist, University of Delaware.
Clinton did very well – calm, cool, collected – and had many facts at her fingertips. In other words, she met the basic expectations.
Trump did not delve into any details, but came across pretty much as we might have expected. Rambling at times with his stream of consciousness. Some of what he said would have had maybe a real
impact if he could stay focused long enough to say it all. But instead he reinforced the idea that he is not all that well versed in details. Still his supporters really don’t care about that.
In the end, Trump was more Twitter Trump (hotel shout out, Latinos as illegals, how bad all blacks have it), than he was Teleprompter Trump. But not really all that surprising.
I really felt Clinton shined in the temperament discussion, but again Trump supporters like his temperament. I don’t see this as winning him any new supporters, but I wonder if it will move undecideds to
Clinton at all. In the end, might move the needle a little toward Clinton, but I suspect as usual any effects will be short term; at least until the next debate.
But of course, I say all of this without reading/listening to the orgy of media conventional wisdom that is undoubtedly spewing all over my Twitter feed and the TV. If the media hands it to Clinton AND even Republican elites find it hard to find much good in Trump’s performance, maybe it does move it toward her. What gets said in the next couple days may be more important than what was said tonight.
I think Trump DID need to reach out beyond his base to get over the hump to actually win – he has to put together a winning coalition. I don’t think he did that tonight. But there are two more debates to go
8. Hillary Clinton carefully managed her facial expressions. Donald Trump was less careful.
From Josh Scacco assistant professor, Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University
Overall, the first debate is the most watched of the three presidential debates and where individuals learn the most about issues and candidate personalities.
In general, debates rarely move the polling needle one way or the other. What debates can do is crystallize or break personality perceptions of the candidates.
Nonverbal communication is critical to shaping candidate perceptions. Hillary Clinton carefully managed her facial expressions. Donald Trump was less careful, choosing to sigh, make rapid facial movements, and shake his head frequently.
Donald Trump’s best debate moment came in the critical first 15 minutes of the debate when he discussed trade. He connected well on this issue, particularly with the blue collar voters in the Midwest. The top viewership of the debate tuned in at this time and Trump was at his best.
Donald Trump’s worst debate moment came in defense of his views on the Iraq War. His answer was off-message and lacked clarity.
Hillary Clinton’s best debate moments came when she discussed the contribution of NATO membership to U.S. foreign policy and her pivot to her experience as Secretary of State when discussing the ‘stamina’ question.
Hillary Clinton’s worst debate moment came in defense of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Selling this position to Midwestern voters will be difficult.
9. He wasn’t in control of his body or his words.
From Jennifer Mercieca, professor, Department of Communication, Texas A&M University, who is writing a book on Trump and demagoguery.
This is from an interview Mercieca conducted last night wit Tom Jacobs with Pacific Standard magazine.
PS: I think it’s fair to say the two candidates have communicated in very different styles this election: Trump is visceral, highly emotional, while Clinton is relatively restrained and intellectual. Did anything change tonight? Did you notice one or both candidates attempting to move more toward the rhetorical center? If so, do you think it worked?
JM: I thought that Trump was less aggressive tonight, which seemed to be his strategy. He referred to her as “Secretary” for example and was only aggressive when defending himself against what he claimed were unfair attacks or misrepresentations of his record. He used paralipsis and Ad Baculum once that I noticed—when he said that he could attack her for much worse that he was, but that it didn’t seem like a good idea during the debate. I thought that Clinton appeared more likable, more knowledgeable, and more presidential than Trump.
PS: Do you think Trump’s bombast or Clinton’s coolness is a more effective way of connecting with voters? Or is each of them effectively reaching THEIR OWN partisans? Is there any way of knowing what the undecided voters are likely to respond to?
JM: My students at debatewatch were disappointed with Trump’s performance. They thought that he didn’t do a good enough job of laying out his policies and positions and spent too much time defending himself or clarifying his record on his business. No one who watched the debate tonight in our 50ish person debatewatch changed their mind about for whom they were voting, including the undecideds.
PS: Trump interrupted Clinton a lot, interjecting ‘no’ or some other objection as she spoke. She basically ignored him and kept talking. Good move on her part? Will that annoy people who believe in politeness, especially women who feel men don’t listen to them?
JM: I thought that she had command of the debate and the debate stage. The only time she seemed smug (a fear for her partisans going in) was when Trump was over explaining or being defensive about his business or his positions or when he was criticizing her. She played to the camera in those moments in a way that looked smug, but I think was probably OK. I think Gore’s problem in 2000 was that he looked smug every time Bush answered, not just when Bush said something wrong or attacked. She showed good restraint.
PS: And what about body language? Trump couldn’t seem to stand perfectly still; he kept clearing his throat (or something) and shifting his feet. What did that convey? What did Clinton’s much calmer demeanor convey?
JM: He was not in control. He wasn’t in control of his body or his words. He had many false starts, rambling thoughts, interjected new ideas into sentences, etc. It was all of a piece.
PS: Predictably, Trump kept turning the conversation back to himself– he even made some reference to people loving him (I have to look up the specific quote, but it was certainly odd to hear it in a debate). I would think her attempt to keep turning the conversation back to ‘This is about you and your future’ would be more effective. What do you think?
JM: Yes, I agree. The single most memorable and most presidential moment of the debate was at the end when Clinton transcended the debate format, look directly into the camera, and spoke to foreign leaders assuring them that America was going to honor its alliances. In that moment she made him look silly and made herself president.
10. Trump has clearly demonstrated that he is not a “fascist.”
I think the real lesson of this debate is that Trump has clearly demonstrated that he is not a “fascist,” not “a threat to democracy,” not a hopeless ignoramus. That sounds like faint praise, but he showed himself to be so completely different from the way that he has been described that people who have not been paying careful attention will realize how badly he has been mischaracterized.