Trump should have won the debate. His bar was set quite low — perhaps the lowest in presidential history — but he didn’t bother to prepare, and it was apparent. History favored Trump in that first debates boost the non-incumbent party candidate an average of 2.6%. Clinton was a sure bet to win on substance, but Trump should have won on style, which would have given him the overall “win.” All he needed to do was sound somewhat coherent on policy and keep his cool, but he failed to do either.
This blog is a postmortem of Trump’s loss as a result of stamina, temperament, sexism, racism, and truthiness.
Trump was great for the first 20 minutes, hammering Clinton on trade and foreign policy, but then he seemed to run out of ideas and steam, and he played defense the rest of the debate. This is the first time Trump has gone one-on-one for an entire debate, and he appeared to lack the necessary stamina.
Trump opened the debate strong with a jab at political correctness by asking Clinton if it was okay to call her “Secretary Clinton,” but as the debate progressed, she poked and prodded and needled him, and he lost his cool and slid into calling her “Hillary.” Child psychology 101, and he took the bait.
Clinton is not a particularly strong public speaker, and she seemed stilted and over-rehearsed last night, but her shortcomings were overshadowed by Trump’s poor performance. He had emotionally unraveled by the time he asserted that “my strongest asset by far is my temperament.” This statement elicited wild laughter from the audience like a punch line.
Trump was unable to hide his sexism. He interrupted Clinton 25 times in the first 26 minutes, and 51 times overall (compared to Clinton’s 17 interruptions). He claimed that Clinton lacked an economic plan, and she replied “In fact, I have written a book about it. It’s called Stronger Together. You can pick it up tomorrow at a bookstore or at an airport near you.” Every female expert has experienced denial of their expert status, and Clinton gleefully exposed the condescending sexism implied in Trump’s statement.
Trump also doubled down on the sexist remark that Clinton doesn’t have “the look” to be president (because she isn’t a man). He took it a step further by challenging her stamina, another thinly veiled sexist jab that frames Clinton as vulnerable and weak. Clinton hit back with “This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs.” His tone-deaf response was to personalize his remarks to Rosie O’Donnell (just one of the many women he’s targeted with gender slurs) and excuse them: “she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.”
Trump also doubled down on racism. Earlier this month, he finally acknowledged that President Obama was born in the U.S., but last night, Trump bragged that he “did a good job” with his birther campaign.
Trump also promoted the ineffective “stop and frisk” policing policy that was ruled unconstitutional by a circuit judge for disproportionately targeting minority groups. Trump seemed unaware of the fact that this practice is empirically ineffective, and even argued with the moderator that it had not been deemed unconstitutional.
Only about 1% of African-American and 17% of Latino voters support Trump, so his dog whistle racism last night likely didn’t lose him many votes. But it was a fresh reminder for undecided voters that he is unequivocally the Alt Right, Klan candidate of choice.
In terms of substance, all Trump had to do was provide semi-cogent, somewhat accurate comments about public policy. Instead, he rambled through generalities and was caught flat-footed when Clinton repeatedly threw his own words at him.
All the pre-debate fuss about whether moderator Lester Holt would fact check the candidates presumed that they would be slick about dissembling. Trump was not. He noticeably stumbled when he claimed that Clinton has “been fighting ISIS her whole adult life,” even though ISIS didn’t exist prior to 2004. Trump also recycled long-debunked claims that he opposed the Iraq War before it started and that birtherism was started by the Clinton campaign.
Trump also repeated the falsehood that he can’t release his tax returns because they’re under audit (he can), which opened it up for Clinton to speculate that, “First, maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be… or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.” He responded that not paying taxes “makes me smart.” Later in the debate, when confronted about his rooting for the housing crisis, Trump replied “that’s called business.”
Trump just wasn’t prepared for questions he knew would be asked, and it showed. His impressive insensitivity and flexibility with the truth has not hurt him much in the past. In fact, it’s a brand that resonates with millions of Americans. But last night, it played into Clinton’s framing of Trump as the unprepared student getting schooled.
Trump blew a big opportunity last night. In the last few weeks, he has almost caught up with Clinton in national polls and closed the gap in some key swing states. First debates matter because polls don’t move much after this, so barring an October surprise, this was Trump’s last big chance to boost his standing. Instead, Clinton is likely to get the bounce.
If I were a Trump supporter, I would be angry with my candidate. He had a low bar that could have easily been met with a little preparation. Trump has no one to blame but himself.