A comfortable win for Hillary, but does it matter?
Yesterday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump finally collided in the first Presidential debate of the 2016 campaign.
For each candidate, what would have constituted a successful debate was rather different. For Trump, arguably the most important thing was to show that he had some depth of policy knowledge which stretched beyond the soundbites and freewheeling style he employed to great effect during the Republican primary debates. For Clinton, there was always going to be a focus on her stamina, after the recent scrutiny regarding her health.
In this debate, it is fair to say that Trump started brightly. He did well to bring up Clinton’s praise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal as the “gold standard” of trade deals; whilst his criticism of Clinton’s near thirty years spent in Washington may resonate well with blue collar workers in important swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Trump also got cheers from the audience following his early exclamation that he was “going to cut taxes bigly”, whilst Clinton was planning to “raise taxes bigly”. As is often the way with Trump, the choice of language was strange, but it seemed to resonate with the audience nonetheless.
However, for Trump that was about as good as it got. When the debate moved onto law and order and foreign policy, his lack of policy knowledge was exposed. He suggested that murder rates in New York City are rising following less use of stop-and-frisk, when in fact they are on the decline. He also stated that Clinton had been “fighting ISIS her entire adult life”, slightly odd given that Clinton was born in 1947 and ISIS only properly formed in 2006. He also struggled to convince with his ‘secret plan to fight ISIS’, which realistically seems to amount to having no plan at all.
Earlier in the debate Trump came close to admitting he didn’t pay federal income tax. When pressed by Clinton about why he wouldn’t release his tax returns, he offered to do so if Clinton released her deleted e-mails. A good response, and in keeping with the Trump campaign’s aim of making Clinton look as untrustworthy as possible. However, when Clinton suggested that Trump wasn’t releasing his tax returns because he hadn’t paid income tax, he took the bait and said that not paying tax, “makes me smart”, and that it didn’t matter “because the money would be squandered”. Unsurprisingly, after the debate the Trump campaign denied that Trump had failed to pay income tax. Nonetheless, Trump suggesting what he did was a huge mistake, particularly when he is attempting to pitch himself as a man of the people.
Although Clinton performed solidly, it has to be said that there were several occasions when she should have capitalised. When Trump responded with relish to a question on the profits he made during the banking crisis with “that’s called business, by the way”, Clinton simply ignored it. A better debater would have made it a moment, creating a soundbite which could lead news bulletins. In addition, as expected Clinton came across well-prepared. But, at times some of her answers appeared overly scripted. However, this was in any case better than Trump’s improvisational approach which saw him rambling, along with several instances of him tripping over his words.
One thing Trump did manage was the best soundbite of the debate. In events such as these, one of the most important things can be to create a soundbite which can be played over and over again. In describing Clinton as having “experience but it’s bad experience,” Trump managed this.
But what he failed to do, was control the debate and push his agenda. There was scant mention of immigration, Trump’s keynote policy. Far too often, he seemed to focus on prescribing America’s problems, rather than suggesting policies which could solve these. In addition, he allowed himself to be dragged into a ridiculous discussion on his previous claims regarding Obama’s nationality, and even suggested that these rumours had been started by people close to Clinton.
In contrast, Clinton provided some relatively assured (albeit unexciting) policy proposals. This is something that Trump seriously needs to work on if he is to improve in the next debate.
But, whilst Hillary Clinton was clearly the victor in this first debate, does her victory really matter?
To those voters who have already decided which candidate to vote for, the answer is not really.
Throughout the campaign it has been clear that there is little that will turn Trump supporters away from their chosen candidate. As such, Trump’s clear lack of foreign policy knowledge, brutally exposed during this debate, seems unlikely to have affected his overall popularity. Likewise, those who began the debate with the view that Trump is not qualified to serve as President, and who want to see Hillary Clinton continue President Obama’s legacy, will not have changed their mind.
In short, for decided voters, this debate told them nothing that they didn’t already know.
However, where this debate might have had an effect is in those voters who are still undecided, or who are supporting third-party candidates.
Undecided candidates will have seen one candidate, who despite not being particularly exciting, was solid and well prepared. Whilst her opponent’s rambling answers betrayed a lack of preparedness for the foreign policy challenges which will be faced by the next President.
For those backing third-party candidates, such as the thirteen percent of voters in Colorado who back Libertarian Gary Johnson, this will have been a wake-up call. Many of those backing Johnson are traditional Republican voters dissatisfied with their party’s nominee. As traditional Republicans, ensuring the White House is occupied by someone with strong national security credentials is extremely important. Seeing Trump’s rambling answers on this topic may persuade them to forgo casting a protest vote for Gary Johnson, and instead swallow their pride and vote for Clinton, simply in order to keep Trump out of the White House.
As such, it would be relatively unsurprising for Clinton to gain a small bounce in the polls as a result of this debate. But in this weird election, don’t count on it lasting long.