Clinton tops Trump in the first debate
Hillary Clinton was this week widely declared the winner of her first presidential debate with Donald Trump, a deeply antagonistic encounter that focused as much on personality as on policy. Watched by a record 84 million TV viewers, the 90-minute face-off came as Clinton’s poll lead had nearly evaporated. The Democratic nominee went on the offense, labeling her opponent’s tax plan as “Trumped-up trickle-down” economics, chiding him for celebrating the 2007 housing-market collapse as an opportunity to buy cheap property— “That’s called business,” he retorted—and suggesting he hadn’t released his tax returns because he was hiding something. “Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is,” she said. “Or maybe he has paid nothing in federal income taxes.” Trump seemed to confirm that he paid no income taxes, saying that “makes me smart.” Clinton also attacked Trump for propagating the “racist lie” that President Obama wasn’t born in the country; for referring to women as “pigs, slobs, and dogs”; and for calling a Venezuelan beauty queen “Miss Piggy” when she gained weight after winning his 1996 Miss Universe competition. When Trump mocked how much debate preparation Clinton had obviously done, she shot back, “You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.”
Trump had his strongest moments when he challenged Clinton over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal she once described as the “gold standard in trade agreements” but now opposes. He criticized the former secretary of state for using a home email server, rejecting her admission that it was “a mistake” by saying she had done it “purposely,” and claimed she lacked the “stamina” to be president. Trump also sparred with the moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, denying that he had backed the Iraq War and insisting that New York’s stop-and-frisk policing policy was effective and neither racist nor unconstitutional (see Talking Points).
In a CNN/ORC instant survey, 62 percent of voters thought Clinton had triumphed, while only 27 percent said Trump had. Public Policy Polling had the margin at 51 percent to 40 percent. Trump later doubled down on his criticism of the former Miss Universe, saying her weight gain was a “real problem,” and suggested he might “hit [Clinton] harder” in the second debate by raising the subject of her husband’s infidelity.
What the editorials said
The first debate “told the story of this year’s presidential race,” said The Washington Post. Democrats have a “flawed but knowledgeable” candidate; Republicans have a charlatan who “cynically or ignorantly sells a warped view of reality” and disqualifies himself “with practically every overheated sentence.” Undecided voters surely had to be alarmed by Trump’s “rattled and defensive performance,” said the Los Angeles Times. His answers became increasingly incoherent as the debate wore on, and his ugliest character traits shone through: “a hypersensitivity to criticism, a streak of viciousness, an inability to confess error, and a willful ignorance about the issues.”
As usual, Trump had no respect for “factual accuracy,” said USA Today. He falsely denied that he’s called climate change a hoax, and made the absurd claim that Clinton had been fighting ISIS her “entire adult life.” Clinton, in contrast, was “composed and informed.” She sensibly allowed Trump to “rattle on” with his rambling answers, knowing he was only making things worse for himself. And while she occasionally came across as “stiff and wonkish,” she provided logical, clearly thought out answers on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues.
Clinton certainly “won on debating points,” said The Wall Street Journal. She baited Trump into spending most of the debate defending himself, rather than “going on offense” against the Clinton Foundation, her emails, and other weaknesses. But Trump “scored points by portraying Clinton as an architect of America’s current malaise.” Ultimately, neither candidate delivered a knockout blow. The central question of this election—whether voters will “take a risk” on Trump to deliver change—remains unanswered.
What the columnists said
Trump came into this debate hoping to appear “presidential,” said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. He failed disastrously. “Trump displayed the factual command of a small child, the emotional stability of a hormonal teen, and the stamina of an old man, staggering and losing the thread as the 90 minutes wore on.” He also admitted to stiffing contractors, and boasted that a club he built in Florida “did not exclude people by race.” Yet Republicans are blaming moderator Holt’s “alleged bias” for their candidate’s implosion. Trump clearly didn’t prepare and was prickly and “horribly out of his depth,” said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. When he ended one “unbalanced rant” by claiming he had “a much better temperament” than Clinton, the audience openly laughed at him.
Trump supporters are bucking themselves up with several consoling thoughts, said David Weigel in WashingtonPost.com. They’re saying he performed well in the first half-hour’s focus on the economy and trade, when viewers tend to be most engaged. They’re also hoping undecided voters saw Trump as “authentic,” and Clinton as a “ talking-point cyborg.” Another consolation for Republicans is that Clinton failed to exploit several chances “to land a haymaker,” said Tim Alberta in NationalReview.com. On his income taxes and the birther issue, Clinton stuck to scripted lines and didn’t jump on Trump’s damaging admissions. If Clinton doesn’t get a “solid” poll bounce from this “lopsided” debate, her team should start panicking.
Unless voters saw the debate very differently than the pundits and focus groups, Clinton should receive “a swing of 2 to 4 points in horse-race polls,” said Nate Silver in FiveThirtyEight.com. Even a 2-point gain would take her “from a fairly uncomfortable position in the Electoral College to a fairly comfortable one.” But there’s obviously no guarantee she’d hold on to those gains—especially with two debates remaining, on Oct. 9 and Oct. 19. Trump can only hope that voters “are really in the mood for the sort of change that he represents, his faults be damned.”