Trump keeps his campaign afloat, but his performance won’t affect the final result.
The expectation was that last night’s Second Presidential Debate would be dominated by the fallout from the derogatory comments made by Trump during an appearance on Access Hollywood in 2005. Early on in the debate, this prediction rang true. Previously, Trump had addressed his recorded comments with a short video, which didn’t include an actual apology but attempted to explain away his behaviour. During the debate, he addressed the scandal in a similarly brief fashion.
He disputed the view espoused by Joe Biden that the recording amounted to “sexual assault”, instead dismissing it as “locker room talk” and following this up with, “I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” He then quickly pivoted to a monologue about his plans to destroy ISIS, and although this plan was relatively incomprehensible, it did prove somewhat successful in drawing the debate away from the subject of the tapes.
But when Clinton, in her strongest passage of the debate, offered a strong rebuke of Trump’s “fitness to serve”, Trump responded by bringing up historic allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton, which followed a pre-debate press conference that he held with several women who allege to have been assaulted by Bill Clinton. Although this was effective in distracting from the problems with his own campaign, it was in no way the best way to bring undecided voters to his side. Prior to the debate, polling suggested that a large majority of voters felt that it would be inappropriate for Trump to bring up Bill Clinton’s alleged misconduct. So although Trump may have reassured his base that he is someone who will stand up to the Clintons, what he won’t have done is persuaded any undecided voters to come aboard. Ultimately, the Trump base is in no way large enough to win an election. No candidate can expect to win without appealing to undecided centre-ground voters, and in bringing up Bill Clinton, Trump did precisely the opposite.
But one thing Trump did well throughout the debate, and which will have gone a long way towards keeping his campaign afloat for the time being, was that he stayed on-message throughout. With Trump, there is always the danger that he goes off on a complete tangent and brings up things completely irrelevant to his campaign, which is something we certainly saw during the first debate. However, this time Trump did well to keep to his long-term script of pitching himself as the only person who can make progress in Washington, as well as consistently disavowing the moderators (and in extension the whole mainstream media) for what he perceived as their biased coverage of him. He regularly interjected whilst Clinton was answering with something along the lines of, “It’s just words, folks,” looking to advance his analysis that throughout her career Clinton has been all words and no action. In addition, when moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper cut him off for going over his two minute limit, he consistently complained that Clinton didn’t get the same treatment (even though she did), with Trump describing the debate as, “one on three”. Again this is a tactic that will further cement Trump’s approval amongst his base of supporters, many of whom believe that the mainstream media is lying to them. But it is unlikely to bring any new supporters into the Trump tent.
Perhaps the most astonishing moment of the debate came when during an exchange about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Trump said that if he wins, he is “going to instruct my Attorney General to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” When Clinton then suggested that given Trump’s loose grasp of the facts it was a good thing that he wasn’t in charge of law and order, Trump hit back with “Because you’d be in jail!” I thought that I’d heard it all in this election, but the threat of jailing the loser is certainly a new one. Making a threat like this is a pretty dangerous game to be playing. Despite the FBI saying that Clinton’s conduct over her emails was “extremely careless”, they concluded that she hadn’t acted illegally. Therefore, Trump is seemingly suggesting that he would imprison Clinton because of her political viewpoint, a tactic used by dictators around the world. Although it may have been meant in a tongue in cheek way, Trump should be disavowing this comment immediately, although don’t count on that happening anytime soon.
Trump did provide us with the best line thus far of any of this election’s debates. In a discussion about a leaked email from Hillary Clinton in which she suggested that politicians needed to have both a public and a private position on certain issues, Clinton gave a unconvincing response that she was referring to the example of Abraham Lincoln using different techniques to get lawmakers to agree with him. Trump responded with: “She lied. Now she’s blaming the lie on the late great, Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe.” This was easily Trump’s best line of the debate, reflected by the subsequent cheers from some members of the audience.
The second half of the debate was relatively civilised in comparison.
As always Trump answered questions without any reference to his prospective policies, which in any case seem to change from day to day.
When asked about how he would improve Obamacare, Trump responded by saying that he would repeal it and institute “the finest health care plan there is,” in its place. Naturally, there was no indication of what this plan might entail.
On every other subject Trump came up with more of the same. There was nothing in way of policy at all. Trump’s pitch rested on basically saying that he will make things better, but not telling anyone how he plans to do this; much like his oft-repeated (and oft-mocked) ‘secret plan’ for fighting ISIS.
But realistically, Trump didn’t need to put forward any substantial policy. If putting forward substantial policy was a requirement in this presidential election, then Trump would not have got this far.
The fact of the matter is that all Trump needed to do last night was come out and keep his cool, and show that his campaign wasn’t imploding in the way that the week’s events suggested it might be. He achieved this. He debated with much more confidence than in the first debate, and Clinton seemed less sure of herself, missing multiple opportunities to castigate Trump for his lack of policy knowledge.
Immediately prior to this debate, for Trump’s campaign to not completely implode whilst on stage, would have been considered a success.
With this in mind, Trump arguably won this debate. Although Clinton answered the questions better, actually put forward real policies, and showed far better temperament; the standard that Trump needed to hit was much lower. Given the events of the past few days, Trump actually turning up for the debate was a victory in itself. Unlike in the first debate, he wasn’t as eager to take the bait offered by Clinton, and Clinton herself was strangely reluctant to go after him when he made mistakes.
On this basis, it can objectively be said that Trump won the debate. Clinton had the chance to end the election then and there on the stage at Washington University, St Louis; but she blew it. Trump needed to win to survive, and there can be little doubt that he managed this. For Clinton, this debate was far less essential. Despite Trump’s narrow win here, she surely retains the momentum, and with the prospect of further tapes surfacing containing worse comments, there are sure to be many further opportunities for Clinton to trash Trump.
But, for now, the race continues. Will this debate have had any effect on the ultimate result of this election? No, I don’t think so. Clinton remains in pole position to take the White House. But Donald Trump lives to fight another day.