The first televised one-on-one debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has taken place, drawing in a record audience estimated at around 100 million viewers. Here are a few quick takeaways:
Slight win for Hillary Clinton, but will it matter?
Across the range of polls, focus groups and reporting that followed the September 26th debate is the broad view that Hillary Clinton ‘won’ this debate. Clinton did not score a knockout blow, and Trump’s supporters and surrogates will of course claim victory themselves, but the former Secretary of State may claw back some support from higher educated voters and suburban women off the back of this performance.
The debate comes at a time when polls have revealed widespread tightening of the race. Swing states like Ohio and Nevada are slipping away from Clinton, and formerly safe states like Pennsylvania and Colorado are drifting back into contention. The Clinton camp will hope that this debate rebuilds a cushion in these important battleground states that should be locked for the Democrats. Even a 2-4% bounce would assuage some of the concerns among Clinton supporters.
However, if this moderate win by Hillary Clinton has no effect on the polls then it truly is a toss-up election.
Trump can’t stay disciplined
For the first few rounds of the debate, Donald Trump was uncharacteristically disciplined and dignified. It was almost as if Kellyanne Conway had whispered in his ear before taking the stage “remember: Presidential!”
However by the second half of the debate he was back to interrupting his opponent, shouting schoolyard insults, and failing to stay on topic in the face of tough questioning. The strict one-on-one format of these debates, without audience participation, does not favour the showman traits of Donald Trump. Instead, under the microscope, his paucity of policy plans and political understanding is more glaringly obvious.
Trump missed numerous opportunities to go on the attack against Secretary Clinton, and he will undoubtedly be coached heavily for the next debate to ensure he scores as many points as he can against his rival, while also staying on message. Afterwards, in the press room, Trump stated that he was glad he chose not to focus on Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities, but hinted that he might resort to such tactics in the next debate, an implicit acknowledgement that things had not gone as he hoped in their first round.
Clinton gets aggressive
Most pre-debate speculation was focused on ‘which Donald Trump’ would turn up; the loudmouth populist, or the slightly more subdued, almost statesmanlike version we have seen since the introduction of Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager. In the event, Trump opted for the latter for the opening few minutes, and eventually resorted to his natural, outspoken self as the debate rolled on.
What many analysts didn’t expect was Clinton’s determined attacks against Trump.
From foreign policy, to issues of sex and race, and particularly on specific topics like Trump’s tax returns and the birther movement, Hillary Clinton remained steady throughout the evening, but progressively ratcheted up her barbs against her rival. She even invoked the speech of Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention, when discussing the birther controversy:
“But I would like to remember what Michelle Obama said in her amazing speech at our Democratic National Convention. When they go low, we go high. And Barack Obama went high, despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to bring him down.”
It seems likely that Trump will rebound in the next debate with a counterpunch mentality, but whether Secretary Clinton will seek to go blow for blow in the next round, or rise above his slurs to appear commanding, is yet to be seen.
Trump strongest on trade
Most commentary has argued that Donald Trump was at his best in the opening salvos of the debate, and it is no coincidence that this was during the section of the evening focused on trade.
International trade agreements are something of a new factor in 2016 and have been a thorn in the side of the Clinton campaign. Trade agreements were rarely brought up in 2012, but the controversy over the Trans Pacific Partnership has elicited opposition among both liberals and conservatives.
Clinton is vulnerable on this issue: she herself has shifted positions on the TPP, and her husband Bill Clinton and predecessor, Barack Obama, are generally pro such treaties. Added to which, Trump enjoys the luxury of critiquing Clinton on the issue without having to engage with the myriad of difficulties his proposals would involve.
Instead, trade is Trump’s most potent populist stick with which to beat at the established political order of which Hillary Clinton is so symbolic.
Trump’s take on cybersecurity
“I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable.”
This was during a conversation about the online presence of ISIS and its partners, reaching disaffected Muslims in the west. Hillary Clinton had just discussed the implications of cyber warfare and cyber security in the modern era, particularly in light of links between Russia and the hack of the Democratic National Committee.
Trump sought to demonstrate understanding of the issue by referencing his son, and how well his son can use computers. This was after he conjectured that the DNC hack could have been committed by “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” This is the kind of understanding America needs from its Commander-in-Chief…
The volume game
An odd, and somewhat uncomfortable, feature of this debate was the extent to which Donald Trump was allowed to yell over Hillary Clinton.
Talking over each other is a staple of political debates, and candidates must be prepared to throw some elbows when rivals seek to distract and disrupt their answers. However, Hillary Clinton faces the problem of countering Trump’s interruptions and the sheer volume of his voice while also avoiding being accused of ‘screaming’ herself.
It is the quintessential gendered issue of politics; while a man can yell and shout at rallies or debates, a woman doing the same is often accused of screaming or screeching. During the Democratic primaries Clinton was criticised on such terms when she raised her voice, despite facing a rival, Bernie Sanders, who delivered almost every public statement in a populist bellow.
Trump actively sought to talk over Clinton, perhaps knowing that if he baited her into a shouting match she would be marred as having resorted to ‘screaming’. It is an unfair and sexist feature of the political environment, but for the most part Secretary Clinton remained composed and disciplined in the face of Trump’s interruptions.
The tax return – email standoff
Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns is unprecedented in modern U.S. presidential politics. His excuse – being under audit by the IRS – has been widely refuted by economic analysts and tax experts, yet he will not comply with tradition.
To Clinton’s credit, she did a decent job of putting pressure on the billionaire, listing out the possible devious reasons for his secrecy. She then laid our a harsh condemnation against Trump:
“So if he’s paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.”
What has been perhaps lost in the shuffle after the debate is that Trump may have admitted he pays virtually nothing in tax, responding to her accusations of tax evasion that “That makes me smart”.
The problem for Clinton is that Trump has a popular, readymade retort:
“I will release my tax returns – against my lawyer’s wishes – when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted.”
That response drew a cheer from parts the debate audience. The degree to which Trump is secretive and nontransparent has been drastically overlooked in 2016, largely because this is the predominant characterisation of Clinton.. Whether this is a case of false equivalency barely matters at this point; from a debating point of view it makes Clinton’s attacks on Trump’s taxes very difficult to execute.
Clinton’s smackdown of Trump’s sexism
The sexist attack was bound to come at some point, under some vain disguise. In this instance, veering away from his previous comments about Hillary lacking a ‘presidential look’, Trump decided to coat his undermining of Secretary Clinton – two years his younger – through the language of stamina. Clinton was having none of it:
“Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”
Clinton was prepared for this attack, and her riposte drew a loud round of applause from the audience. Hillary rounded upon her rival following this attack and brought up Trump’s insulting comments about women, including one particularly damaging incident when the Republican nominee called a Miss Universe contestant, an hispanic woman who he complained about having gained weight, “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping”.
The fact check election
Remember 2012? Back then the biggest fact checking controversy of the debates was concerning when and how President Obama called an attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya an ‘act of terror’.
Fast forward four years and fact checking has assumed an importance never seen before in modern U.S. politics. Clinton has been under her own share of scrutiny, particularly for her remarks on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Yet the overwhelming burden of fact checking falls on Donald Trump.
Here are just a few of the biggest falsehoods told by Trump in this debate:
- Trump continues to argue that he did not support the war in Iraq, despite indicating he did support a war in Iraq in 2002.
- Trump did indeed tweet out that he believes climate change is a hoax concocted by the Chinese, despite backing away from this statement.
- He misrepresented figures about jobs leaving Michigan and Ohio.
- Trump did say he would “negotiate down the debt”, despite blurting out “wrong” when Clinton brought this up.
- Despite disagreeing with the debate moderator on the issue, New York’s blanket ‘stop and frisk’ policy was judged unconstitutional in 2013.
- Trump continues to misrepresent crime figures as rising nationally, while they have only shown a slight increase in certain urban areas, and a long term decline nationally.
- Trump’s claims that the Clinton campaign in 2008 started the ‘birther’ movement are, for want of a better word, bullshit.
- Trump did support action in Libya to remove Qaddafi from power, despite his objections
- Trump claimed the U.S. pays for 73% of the cost of NATO, when the figure is closer to 22%.
- Trump wrongly claims responsibility for the creation of a NATO section focused on terrorism, when plans for such a division were in the works since 2014.
The real question will be whether, moving forward, debate moderators like Lester Holt will feel empowered to provide real time fact checking. Trump’s camp will argue that such interjection is not the role of the moderator, but without a voice for the facts as they are best known, Trump’s deliberate misrepresentation of facts will continue to mar this election.