There was overwhelming consensus among America’s commentators on the day after: the first presidential debate was a clean sweep for Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, Donald Trump was just bad. This outcome was a little surprising given the narrative of the past few weeks with Trump gaining momentum and Clinton losing her footing. The question now of course is: will it matter? Instant polling taken right after the debate saw Clinton squarely in the lead, but it remains to be seen, whether the electorate will definitely tilt in her favor on Election Day. In any case, here are the main takeaways from the first presidential debate:
- 1 – “Trump gets testy and unhinged when Clinton gets under his skin.” Despite a long series of primary debates with his fellow Republican rivals, Trump had no experience with debating a consummate political pro that is Hillary Clinton one-on-one. After a strong opening, Trump saw himself under attack by Clinton who went after him on his refusal to release his tax returns and on his business career that he started with money from his wealthy father. From that moment on, Trump gradually unraveled and got angrier and angrier, spending a big part of the rest of the night yelling at Clinton and the moderator. His constant interrupting Clinton, shouting over her and defending and explaining himself came across as bullying. Reactions of a focus group that Euronews had assembled for a debate watch in Washington were negative across the board, especially among women.
- 2 – “Trump’s limited mastering of policy issues shows.” Trump was most assertive when he felt he was on familiar terrain like jobs, trade, Mexico, China. But once he ticked off his standard campaign talking points, he was lacking further substance, let alone details to take the conversation to the next level. As a consequence, he veered to another topic (and another) and meandered unfocused through a bucket list of his favorite subjects, for example, when he pivoted from taxes to the fight against ISIS. It was almost as if he had to fill airtime with substitute snippets just to keep talking and to keep steamrolling Clinton. This was most obvious in the course of the discussion about cybersecurity when he, all of a sudden, talked about the computer proficiency of his ten-year-old son.
- 3 – “Clinton’s strategic choice: give Trump just enough rope to help him hang himself.” Clinton parried Trump’s over-bearing and noisy attacks by smilingly sitting it out. After all, why get in the way of your opponent hurting himself? Trump repeatedly interrupted her, launched rambling attacks against her and justified his own controversial remarks and positions. Instead of forcefully going after him – which she did when her debate opponent was Bernie Sanders – Clinton remained calm and kept her cool. At one point when the moderator finally gave her the floor, she just took a deep breath and laughed with a look that said: “no further questions, your honor.”
- 4 – “Clinton deflects effectively from her own worrying issues.” Clinton largely dominated the evening by subtly steering the debate toward topics uncomfortable for Trump. She realized that the most effective attacks are not about exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses but challenging his perceived strengths. So she went right for Trump’s ego – hammering him on his questionable $11 billion net worth, his boastful record on job creation and picking apart his tough talk on fighting ISIS. Trump seemed to be caught on the wrong foot given his unfocused, erratic and increasingly aggressive answers. He was so occupied justifying himself that he forgot to bring up topics that Clinton’s campaign was most worried about, most notably the various questions surrounding the Clinton Foundation. He did bring up, though, her email issue, but only briefly – and she managed to swat it off within seconds.
- 5 – “Clinton delivers a no-mistake performance.” It is hard to come up with anything that Clinton did wrong, and I gave it a lot of thought. Throughout the evening, she was extremely prepared, relaxed, focused and disciplined, countering Trump’s his withering attacks with a steely stare, total calmness and at times even with a big smile. Probably only few people expected her to be that much in command, especially after weeks of bad headlines, during which Trump surged in the polls. The second debate is now two weeks away, and the pressure will be on Trump. Yet, he has proven to be a fast learner, so chances are we will see a more mature Republican candidate – even if the next debate is a town hall format which has its own challenges.