Luke Tryl is a former Special Adviser to Nicky Morgan.
It’s fair to say that expectations were high for the first US Presidential debate of 2016. Experts were predicting that viewership could top 100 million, making it easily the most watched live event in American political history.
And for good reason – it’s hard to think of a bigger contrast in policy or style than between the two candidates who took to the stage last night.
At one podium, there was a candidate with a CV seemingly tailor-made for the presidency – a former Secretary of State, Senator, First Lady and accomplished lawyer. Yet Hillary Clinton has let her penchant for secrecy lead to a number of unforced errors – most notably her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State. At the same time, she has struggled to build enthusiasm among millennials enthralled by her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders.
At the other, there was the larger-than-life billionaire showman who, despite never having held elective office, rode a wave of populist sentiment to crush a hostile Republican establishment and seize the GOP nomination. Donald Trump has defied all of the rules of political campaigning to survive episodes that would have disqualified any other candidate – freely insulting women, minorities and even the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq.
Those differences in what was dubbed the ‘Bart Simpson vs Lisa Simpson’ debate were put into stark relief by each candidates’ approach to prep. Clinton spent weeks meticulously pouring over policy detail and engaging in mock debates. Trump eschewed briefing materials and dress rehearsals, instead preferring to toss ideas around over ‘golf and cheese burgers’.
Which perhaps explains why it was universally agreed that Clinton lost the pre-debate expectations game. Most commentators predicted that a passable or even coherent performance by Trump would be chalked up as a win. After all, when the highlight of one of his previous performances was defending the size of his manhood, it was hard to set the bar much lower.
The fireworks started even before the candidates took to the stage. Last year’s squabbles here in the UK about the format of the election debates paled into comparison with the fierce row over the role of Lester Holt, the debate’s moderator, in fact checking. The Clinton campaign’s decision to invite Trump antagonist Mark Cuban to watch was met by Trump suggesting he’d bring Gennifer Flowers, best known for revealing her extramarital encounter with Bill Clinton (though Trump’s campaign later dismissed this as a joke).
And with the polls showing the candidates just a hair breadth apart, the stage was set for what some had dubbed “the clash of the century”.
For me at least, it didn’t disappoint with the debate providing 90 minutes of entertaining if not always edifying TV.
No matter what Clinton did, the debate was always going to be judged against her opponent, and the key question was which Trump would turn up. For the first 20 minutes, Democrats must have been nervous, as a disciplined and sober, Trump overcame sniffles to hammer home a clear message about jobs and trade. He cast Clinton as an agent of a failed status quo ,and looked set to capitalise on his business experience and outsider status.
But this was a tactic for which Clinton had obviously prepared, and she wasted no time in working to bring out Trump’s Mr Hyde. Throughout the debate, the former Secretary of State goaded her opponent over his dodgy business practices, tax returns and suitability to be President. He soon found it impossible to resist the bait. Over the course of 90 minutes, Trump went from superficial to ranting to almost totally incoherent. At various points, he wore as a badge of pride the fact that he had forced Obama to release his birth certificate, failed to pay contractors, rooted for a housing crash and been ‘smart’ by not paying tax. He claimed that opening fire on an Iranian boat wouldn’t start a war, and justified derogatory comments about women by saying he was referring alone to Rosie O’Donnell. His performance culminated in a classic Trump monologue about his winning temperament, which caused even the previously strictly silent audience to burst into laughter.
Holt put in a strong performance, obeying the maxim that debate moderators should be rarely seen or heard, and only interjecting to call out Trump’s outright lies. While it’s arguable he gave the Republican candidate a marginally harder time, the very fact that it was Trump supporters who took to social media to complain of bias was a sure sign that Clinton had won the debate.
Which is not to say that Clinton was perfect. Her answers, while detailed, often came across as overly academic and lacking in passion. She will have done little to dispel the image of herself as firmly part of the establishment, and although some of her one-liners hit home (“A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear code” and “I prepared for the debate, I prepared to be president”) hit home, others “Trumped up,Trickle Down” sounded flat and over-rehearsed.
But all said and done, independent polls and focus groups of undecided voters were clear in their verdict that this was a Clinton victory. CNN’s poll, which showed a 62 per cent-27 per cent win for Clinton, will have hit the top end of her campaign’s expectations.
Of course, those 90 minutes may not end up mattering all that much at all. While debates are remembered and replayed for their killer soundbites, the truth is that only twice in the past 40 years has the leader in the polls changed following the first debate. Trump can also take heart from the fact that candidates, from a ‘confused’ Reagan in 1984 to a ‘deflated’ Obama in 2012, have bounced back from dreary first debate performances to win subsequent debates and the election.
All in all, both candidates probably did little to dispel preconceived opinions about themselves. Clinton may have stalled Trump’s momentum, and stopped the bleeding that followed the revelation of her pneumonia diagnosis. But if you didn’t like Trump before, you won’t like him after – and if you’ve stuck with Trump in spite of everything so far, you’ll probably stick with him some more.
Which leaves us largely back where we started. With six weeks to go, Clinton maintains a slight advantage and, if this summer’s events on our side of the Atlantic have taught us anything, it’s that even 24 hours is plenty of time for that to change.