Overriding everything is that it struck me as the most sane of the debates. No, not by common standards, but by this election. And I thought that Chris Wallace did a very solid job, the best of the moderators. In fairness, that in part was because the candidates were comparatively on their best-behavior. Some of that is thanks to Wallace, who did pretty well keeping them in line, though most, I think, is because he lucked out and it was both their strategies.
As always, I tried to watch this through the eyes of an undecided voter. And with that in mind, I thought Trump did passably well in some areas, and scored some points, though overall came across as too angry and uncomfortable. And although he was definitely better than he'd been -- so was Hillary Clinton, who seemed steady and solid throughout, and scored more often. Trump again started strong, but faded the last half and became more petulant as the criticisms built up.
Viewers seemed to agree. The CNN/ORC poll had Secretary Clinton winning the debate 52%-39% And the YouGov poll had her winning 49%-39%.
This is a very big problem. When you're behind in the general polls by around 8 points with only 20 days left, and you have to not only win the debate, but well-enough to turn things around...losing the debate so decisively is very bad. And it's worse when voters know it's not just losing this debate, but you lost all three, each by a lot. That has an even greater cumulative effect.
Worse is the small sample of a focus group of undecided voters in the swing state of Ohio that was on MSNBC. The 32 participants judged the debate fairly even -- but -- when asked if it changed their minds to one candidate or another, they said it convinced them to vote for Hillary Clinton by 11 to 5. (The others said it didn't impact their vote.) That's deeply problematic for Republicans. At this point, they can't just be worrying about the presidential race, but how this will impact voters for the downticket races, most notably the Senate and the House. How this all might depress their "get out the vote" effort, which was not strong to begin with.
Worse too is that whatever this immediate reaction was, the post-debate reaction will linger even more, I think, because of THE moment. It will be the headlines, and it will garner most of the attention.
That's of course when Donald Trump, the Republican Party nominee, wouldn't say that he would necessarily accept the results of the election. Analysts and politicians and even voter reaction in the focus group were aghast. So many analysts went so fair as to say it was a "disqualify statement" -- including Republican analysts like Steve Schmidt and Nicole Wallace on MSNBC. Ms. Wallace even quoted a tweet sent out by the deeply-conservative pundit Laura Ingraham who was highly critical. Hugh Hewitt, the well-regarded pundit (at least in Republican circles) thought hat Trump "won 14 of 15 rounds" (that should show you how thoughtful his "well-regarded" analysis is)...but even he said that that one comment wiped out everything.
On the other hand, Chris Matthews did a long interview on MSNBC with Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Rudy Giuliani who blithely though THE comment was perfectly fine and ordinary. The bipartisan afterwards were utterly beside themselves, saying how completely clueless they thought the attitude was.
THE comment aside -- which is a pretty massive thing to put aside -- a few specifics did leap out for me as I watched the debate. (Which I watched late, after having recorded it, choosing instead the watch the Cubs game live. Happily it was a good night, as they tied the series. But I digress...)
The first thing that stood out as very problematic for Trump was all the discussion on Russia. The fact that he was so weak on saying he'd be outraged that a foreign power was was trying to influence U.S. election was glaring. My recollection is that eventually he said it was wrong if a country tried to do that, but it took a long while to get there after a lot of teeth-pulling, and was pretty bland. This was a no-brainer question: Yes, you say immediately, if a foreign power tries to influence our elections that is horrible, ghastly, reprehensible, and then you go on and on to explain why. But when there is so much suspicion of your ties to Russia and you don't do that it's all the more troubling for your campaign. And very bad, too, is that despite 17 intelligence agencies confirming that Russia is behind the hacks -- and that Trump himself was briefed on it -- it was a big problem for him that he still won't acknowledge it's Russia. In fact, I'm a bit surprised that Secretary Clinton didn't pile on and mention that a Russian hacker had been arrested in Prague that very day.
Another bad point for Trump, which I suspect will get replayed for a while. He said that he didn't apologize to his wife over the still-problematic Access Hollywood tape with his sexual abuse comments -- yet his wife is on record (and I believe on tape) saying that, yes, he did apologize to him. This only exacerbates and already terrible problem for him.
Then there was the bizarre "Bad Hombres" comment. It's minor -- but it's not insignificant. Mainly, it's just idiotic, unnecessary, speaks to the bad impression many people likely have about who he is, and will only serve to reinforce, if not increase, the low Hispanic support he has.
And finally, I think he's throw-away comment in his closing statement, "Such a nasty woman," is going to be much worse for him than analysts positioned it. And they thought it was pretty bad. The thing is, it's not just an awful statement. But two things. The first is that it confirms again but in such spiteful terms the opinions people have of him and his attitude towards women. And second, it came in his closing, and as my grad school pal Peter Carlisle (the former, long-time chief prosecutor of Honolulu and its former mayor) told me -- people most-remember opening statements and closing statements, which is why attorneys work so hard on them. So, "such a nasty women" is not only bad -- especially in relation to what I suspect people feel about Trump -- but also it will be remembered.
And okay, that wasn't exactly "finally." One last epilogue. I didn't hear it mentioned at all on any of the post-debate analysis -- probably because it was such a small,throw-away line, but I absolutely loved Hillary Clinton's repeated, dismissive references after noting a list of one her own substantive accomplishments, saying, "...meanwhile, you were hosting Celebrity Apprentice." In addition to be very funny, it was such a smart way in its simplicity to not only undercut his idiotic charges of her doing nothing, but point out in easy-to-grasp terms -- Remember, folks, this is who he is.
After the debate, cameras showed a dour Trump quickly getting in to his car and head off, all the while showing an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton with an ear-to-ear grin sticking around the Thomas and Mack Center, high-fiving supporters.
But...the second happiest woman in America is SNL's Kate McKinnon...