So, this was a presidential debate? In fairness, dark tone aside -- which is a lot to put aside -- one of the reasons for the lack of specifics was that so many of the questions from audience members were general overview, theoretical types. ("How will you bring the country together?" Or "Can you compliment the other person, please?" And "How do you think the tone of this campaign can be kept from scaring children so much that they can't get to sleep at night?")
I don't have it in me to analyze the details of what went on in the debate last night. To some degree, though, the specifics don't matter. At this point, a month from Election Day, what matters is the impact it has on the race. But just on general principle, breaking it all down to specific points would be a trip into a land I don't want to go.
This isn't to say I think there were equal problems of darkness on both sides, which is sort of the impression I got from post-debate analysis on MSNBC and CNN. I don't feel it was even remotely equal. Certainly, Hillary Clinton did make a lot of negative charges against Donald Trump which helped add to the overall burdensome sense of the occasion . But when the evening was preceded by a bizarre, bleak press conference two hours before the debate with Donald Trump bringing out four women who have accused Bill husband of sexual improprieties, and then brings them into the debate room, and then drags them and Mrs. Clinton's husband and sexual improprieties in the debate, and tries to throw slimy implications at Hillary Clinton for acting as a court-appointed defense attorney of an accused rapist, and threatens a special prospector and to jail his political opponent (something we might expect from Third World dictatorships and Communist countries), I think it would be deeply unreasonable to expect a person not to respond harshly. And to think that any negative comments she made even compares to these things -- to jailing alone, before piling on all else -- at any level is to create a false equivalence beyond rationality.
What I'd rather address are more general aspects surrounding the debate.
After the debate, I was shocked to see the panels on both MSNBC and CNN pretty much say that they thought the debate was pretty equal. Indeed, more panelists than otherwise thought Trump might have even won by a bit.. Again, forget the specifics of the night (such as Donald Trump acknowledging avoiding paying income taxes for almost two decades), and forget even the stream of unrepentant lies by Donald Trump (like saying that he never tweeted about watching a sex tape -- when, in FACT, it's easy to show the tweet were he did, in FACT, tell people to watch a "sex tape"), which help make it seem like you're being substantive when you're really not, I wasn't sure what debate the analysts were watching.
As readers here know, I posted earlier in the day -- and repeatedly for the past weeks -- that the only group that matters now are Undecided Voters. And so I watched the debate from the perspective of an Undecided Voter. And eight minutes into the debate, I sent out a tweet that it was a trainwreck for Donald Trump. Half an hour in, with an hour still to go, I tweeted that after a debate I'm usually anxious to see who the public feels won, but tonight my only question, on behalf of Hillary Clinton, was by how much.
And when the polls came in, my reaction was spot on. The CNN/ORC Poll (which the pollster noted has "slightly" more Democrats than in a national poll) showed that Hillary Clinton won by 57-34%. That's a landslide. Even factoring in the slight imbalance of Democrats being polled, let's say five percent, that's still a massive 18 point margin. A YouGov poll was much closer, but also gave the win to Hillary Clinton, 47-42%. That's two polls out of two saying Hillary Clinton won. (There also was sort of a third poll. CNN had a panel of Undecided Voters in the swing state of Ohio. Again, remember, this is Undecided Voters, the only group that matters. And almost every one of them said that Hillary Clinton won or was a draw. Only a single person said Trump.)
It was clear to me from almost the start, watching the debate from the perspective of an Undecided Voter, that Hillary Clinton won the debate and by a large margin. After all, these people are undecided specifically because they’re looking for who is presidential. It's not about the issues, because the issues have long-since been on the table. But they just don't know yet who is the person who could be The President. And Hillary Clinton had clearly made a conscious decision beforehand not to engage Donald Trump on his level. Not to get into arguments with him, or interrupt, but rather show a presidential temperament. It might have been laconic at times, and less satisfying to Clinton supporters who wanted to see her slam Trump on every point and correct every single lie, but Clinton supporters didn't matter. Only Undecided Voters and what they were looking for mattered. Meanwhile, on the other side, Donald Trump was glowering, wandering around, petulant, interrupting, skulking, whining, almost stalking her, unable to stay in one place, unable to show any respect for the occasion, actually saying he’s going to jail her like in a Banana Republic, bringing up her husband and discussing affairs and inviting all the women accusers, and then, again, all that relentless sniffling that looked like he was on drugs (I'm not saying he was, or wasn't, just that it was the appearance, again). And it was blatantly obvious to me that Undecided Voters were going to HATE that. All of it. And were going hate that he dismissed what he said on The Tape about sexual assault as nothing more than locker room banter.
Yes, a lot of these things were just visual optics, and not substantive issues. But for better or worse, they matter to many voters, especially undecided ones. In part, no, they're not terribly valid for deciding on a president, but in part they do define character. But the bottom line is that to many voters they simply do matter. It was such visual optics that helped Mike Pence squeak by with a slight win in the VP debate. And so they matter. A lot. The visual optics helped John Kennedy win his debate with Richard Nixon. And helped George H.W. Bush lose to Bill Clinton when he looked at this watch, seemingly bored. And helped Al Gore lose when debated George W. Bush. What Donald Trump was doing all night was more than all those combined. And when you go into the debate with voters uncertain about your temperament to be president in the first place, such things seriously matter all the more.
CNN and MSNBC missed all that. And Hillary Clinton won both polls, one by a landslide. And here's the thing, which I wrote the other day -- when you're behind by as much as Donald Trump is (and that's before polls taken after the revelation of The Tape), you not only can't afford to lose a second debate...you can't tie the debate. You have to turn things around, and win big. And he not only didn't win big, nor did he at least tie. He lost big.
In fact, Republican operative Schmidt put this all in proper perspective on MSNBC. Late in the evening, he said, "Donald Trump was dead before this debate, and when you're dead -- you don't come back. You're dead. Donald Trump is dead. He will not be elected President of United States." And then added, "There is real chance Republicans could lose House of Representatives."
I don't necessarily think they will, at least at this point. Nor is Schmidt saying they will. Just that there is a real chance that they could. And I think, in part, that's based on the awareness that we likely haven't seen the last or the worst of tapes on Donald Trump.
There was one other interesting reaction to an "inside the numbers" poll result from CNN. Breaking down the responses, they found that voters significantly felt by a large margin that Donald Trump exceeded expectations. And both CNN and MSNBC analysts made a big deal of this. But the thing is...unmentioned by them...how on earth could he not have exceeded "expectations"??! He'd been crushed in the first debate by 30 points in most polls. And he was coming off a disastrous 72 hours with the revelation of The Tape. And so, he "beat expectations." Well...swell. Because despite a vast majority saying he beat "expectations" -- that very same poll also said that Hillary Clinton beat him, 57-34%.
All on a night when Donald Trump had to win by a landslide to turn his campaign around. He didn't.
Late in the evening, CNN anchors were saying that it was probably a good night for Republicans because Donald Trump at least solidified his based. Well, sorry, guys. We're 30 days from the election. We're long past the time when you have to solidify your base. Especially when you're behind. Trump's debate performance might have stopped some defection of voters, but "some" doesn't cut it. That's not a good deal at this point. Especially when I am sure that other than stopping "some," we'll also see a lot more GOP endorsements taken back in the next week.
Remember: right now, only Undecided Voters matter. And as respectable, ordinary, solid a job as Hillary Clinton did last night, no more, no less, she understood that and had a game plan to appeal to them. And the poll results show she succeeded.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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