Post-debate Wisdom 1.0

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


Hillary passed the Presidential plausibility test. Donald Trump didn’t—but there are still two more debates. Note to Donald: Review Ronald Reagan’s performance in the 1984 first debate (he sleepwalked) and second (Reagan’s terrific comeback, pledging not to make his opponent’s “youth and inexperience” an issue). Reagan and Barack Obama both had poor first debate performances, Obama in 2012 against Mitt Romney. Both improved in subsequent rounds and won their elections going away. One difference is that both Reagan and Obama were incumbents. Trump doesn’t have that edge—which, in today’s political environment is not necessarily a bad thing.

Clinton looked and sounded like a President—despite Trump’s insistence that she “didn’t have the look.”

Trump’s performance brought to mind the trio of Al Gore-George W. Bush debates with the V. P.’s sighing, facial gymnastics and awkward moves. Probably more than almost any other factor, Gore’s debate performances in 2000 blocked his path to the White House. We can just about guarantee that, just as Gore’s sighs were played over and over in the media, Trump’s snorting and sniffling will find their way not only onto cable news but onto that newly powerful political messaging tool, social media. (Twitter announced that the first Clinton-Trump debate “was the most tweeted debate ever.”)

Clinton may not have been able to close the enthusiasm gap between Trump’s base and her voters or to move the needle with Millennials, but Trump didn’t do anything to woo the African-American, Latino, women or undecided voters he needs to put the election away.

Moderator Lester Holt was low key and gave both candidates a lot of rope. And as Trump began to unravel in his accusations, Clinton just got out of the way and let her opponent trip over it.

The pundit class was almost unanimous in giving the debate win to Clinton. Even conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt called the first part of the debate for Trump, but said he lost his way after the first half hour. (Conventional wisdom says that, in the short history of Presidential debates, the first half-hour of the debate can be the most telling. It was in the first half-hour of his debate against Jimmy Carter that then-President Gerald Ford freed Poland, for example.) Hewitt also opined that the debate won’t move the needle. But in a race that looks so close, a tweak of one or two points in poll numbers could be important.

After his initial thrust on trade (which isn’t really most voters’ major concern), Trump spent most of the debate on the defensive—on the birther issue, his tax returns, his business practices. Clinton benefited from the lack of focus on emails and the Clinton Foundation. Neither Holt nor Trump honed in on these issues as they could have (though we know that Trump knew to tip-toe lightly around questions surrounding his foundation). And Clinton gleefully tip-toed around those issues, too.

Clinton remained cool and under control throughout the debate, while Trump was clearly off his meds. Trump showed he hasn’t figured out that conundrum haunting male candidates: How to go on the offensive without looking like he’s beating up on a woman. Hollering over Clinton and continually interrupting her may be good reality TV, but may not be good politics.

Trump’s claim that his “strongest asset” is his “temperament” was the “say what” moment of the debate. According to CNN, “Facebook said the ‘top social moment’ of the debate” was when Trump made that claim. Said CNN, “The comment was met by laughs in the debate hall and snarky replies on social media.”

It’s a political axiom that whoever wins the spin, is the winner of the debate. Right now the media, the punditocracy, and instant polls have decided that looks mightily like Hillary Clinton.

And now, here come the Veeps!

 

 

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