What to expect from the final Presidential debate.

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It’s finally arrived, the final debate in this marathon Presidential campaign.

With Donald Trump having lost a lot of ground in the race to the White House, polling suggests that Hillary Clinton has a national lead of around six percent, Trump certainly has a lot to do in this debate.

Expect Trump to go on the attack from the beginning, in an attempt to make up some of this ground. It would be no surprise to see Trump continue his claims that the election is being rigged against him by the media. Given that this debate is being moderated by Chris Wallace from FOX News, it is perhaps less likely that Trump calls the moderation biased than he did in previous debates. However, Wallace is a registered Democrat (although he says that this is just so he can vote in the primaries) and he did say earlier this year that he felt the media weren’t hard enough on Donald Trump.Therefore, if Trump feels that he’s losing the momentum, don’t be overly surprised if he decides to claim that everyone is ganging up on him, as did in the first debate when he suggested that it was “three against one”, with Clinton, and moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz all ganging up against him. A repeat of a similar scene would not be unexpected.

In addition, with the continual dumping of John Podesta’s hacked emails by Wikileaks, expect information gleaned from these to make up a large proportion of Trump’s attacks. The emails which suggested Clinton knew CNN debate question in advance during the Democratic Primary feed into his rigged election narrative. In addition, the revelation that the government of Qatar (who have a sketchy human rights record) had donated $1 million to the Clinton Foundation could prove slightly embarrassing to Clinton. Trump claims that these emails have been completely ignored by the media. He is wrong. The media have reported them, and in normal times they would be front page news. However, the recording of Trump’s derogatory remarks on the set of Access Hollywood in 2005, and other reports of sexual misconduct, have drowned out the stories about Clinton. This means that this final debate is the only chance Trump will have to confront Clinton about these allegations.

One thing notable about this debate, is that a full fifteen minute section will be devoted to the topic of immigration. It was surprising how little immigration was discussed during the previous two debates, and it was quite surprising that Trump didn’t look to steer the conversation towards one of his stronger topics. This debate will give Trump the opportunity to talk about one of his keynote policies: the wall on the US-Mexico border. Of course, this debate also gives an opportunity for this policy to be properly scrutinised. It seems pretty obvious that building a wall on the whole border is completely unrealistic. For a start, we’re talking about a full-blown wall, not just a fence. This means that the cost will be completely exorbitant, with it having been estimated that costs could rise at high at $25 billion. In addition, the wall would have to cover a border which is almost 1,900 miles long. Much of this land isn’t owned by the US Government, which would push the cost even higher. All in all, the policy of building a wall on the US-Mexico border is completely unrealistic. This perhaps explains Trump’s reluctance to bring it up in a debate, as he realises that it would be picked apart by Clinton and the moderators. Nonetheless, it seems likely that this debate will force him to discuss it. Whilst the issue will likely further energise his base, it seems unlikely to be one which will gain him any undecided voters. I mean, if you wanted a wall on the US-Mexico border, then surely you’d be supporting Trump already?

These undecided voters, are who Trump chiefly needs to target in this debate. With polling suggesting he is six points behind Clinton, and this being the final televised debate, he is rapidly running out of opportunities to appeal to undecided voters. This is where a debate strategy that involves continuous attacks on Clinton could fall flat. Undecided voters are tired of hearing about this. Instead, they want to hear about policy. With debate topics including: debt and entitlements, the economy, and foreign hot spots; both candidates have a chance to show off their policy ideas, in an attempt to woo some of these undecided voters. If Trump’s policy knowledge is as lacking as it was in the first debate, then he could well seriously struggle with this.

As well as appealing to swing voters, Trump needs to try and persuade the traditional GOP supporters, who are deserting him in droves, to vote for him in November. Polling currently suggests that traditionally safe Republican states such as Arizona, Georgia, Utah, and even Texas, are now considered toss-ups. It is the polling from Texas which will have most alarmed the Trump campaign. Although, there is a growing Hispanic population in Texas, it was still considered to be safe. Indeed, just one month ago Trump had a lead of eleven points in Texas, but this has now fallen to just four points, which is within the margin of error. Trump needs to be clear on his commitment to traditional Republican policies, otherwise he risks losing these kind of states. Given that he is already up against it in the swing states, losing perceived ‘safe’ states would be disastrous.

Equally, Trump has to ensure he appeals to those in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa. All in all, this means that Trump has to carry out an unenviable balancing act, to try and keep voters from many very different constituencies on side.

Given these competing priorities, it would be no surprise to simply see Trump fall back on his usual tactic of insulting the competition, but not actually offering much substance. He has already announced the slightly baffling news that he has invited President Obama’s half-brother, Malik Obama, to attend the debate. Malik has previously said that he supports Trump, but this invite feels just like a publicity stunt, much the same as when Trump invited Bill Clinton’s accusers to the last presidential debate. The stunt didn’t have an impact then, and it isn’t going to work now. Trump has a misguided knack of attacking people who aren’t on the ballot, at the last debate it was Bill Clinton, throughout the past week it has been Paul Ryan, and at this one it looks as though it will be Barack Obama. This isn’t going to do anything to help Trump in this election, and seems totally unnecessary.

Overall, this debate gives Trump one final chance to appeal to undecided voters in the swing states. This is the most important thing for his campaign, and is absolutely what he should be focusing on. However, things like inviting Malik Obama to the debate suggests that Trump is going to fall back on his strategy of getting the odd good soundbite. This hasn’t worked so far as a way of persuading swing voters to back him, therefore there seems no reason that it will work now. For populist actions like this, Trump can use his mass rallies to energise his base. There seems little point in using the final presidential debate to do what he can do in fifteen minutes at one of his mass rallies. Instead he must use his debate to put forward some substantial policy, or his chances in this election are numbered. The indications suggest that once again Trump will avoid actual policy, and as a result the Hillary Clinton campaign must be licking their lips, a result like this couldn’t be more perfect for them, as it further consolidates Clinton’s position as the only candidate in this race who has put forward any real policy.

With Clinton’s poll numbers now pretty good, all she has to do is turn up and perform as competently as she did in the first two debates. For Trump, he must now put forward some proper policy, or he has got no chance.

Debate Debrief.

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Trump and Clinton face off last night in the Second Presidential Debate.

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.

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Bill and Chelsea Clinton look on nervously. 

 

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.

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Trump consistently interrupted Clinton’s answers with comments like, “It’s just words folks.”

 

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.

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