So who won the presidential debate? Interest in the first presidential debate at Hofstra University on Monday September 26 was very high given that the race to the White House is now a dead heat. 84 million people tuned in, the highest number of viewers since President Jimmy Carter debated Republican nominee Ronald Reagan back in 1980. Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns declared their candidate the winner.
If you turn to the polls, most of them declared Donald Trump the winner. According to The Daily Mail, 17 out of 19 SNAP polls showed Trump winning the debate. These polls included the Time Magazine online poll which had 409,743 votes out of which 58% picked Donald Trump as the winner vs. 42% for Hillary Clinton. In addition, the CNBC poll in which 220,615 people voted, 51% said Trump won vs. 49% for Clinton. The one outlier was the CNN/ORC flash poll which found that 62 percent declared Hillary Clinton the winner versus 27% who picked Donald Trump. Conservative leaning polls such as Breitbart awarded the evening’s victory 76% to Trump and 24% to Clinton. (CNBC, Time Magazine online polls says Donald Trump won the first presidential debate)
Interestingly enough, most pundits were actually more complimentary to Clinton than to Trump. And conservatives represented some of Trump’s sharpest critics. “Hillary was well-informed and unflappable; Trump got across his major themes but was probably too Trump to widen support” said National Review Executive Editor Rich Lowry. Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol’s comments were similar: “I’m not positive Hillary actually won the debate. But I’m sure Trump lost it. He choked.”(Why Even Republicans think Clinton won the First Debate)
As someone who follows politics very closely, I was actually disappointed by Trump’s performance. My pre-debate prediction was that Clinton would have some good moments, but that Trump would be the runaway winner of the debate. If I was to award grades for debate performances, I would give Trump a C and Clinton a B-. In short, Trump reiterated his key policy talking points and had some strong moments. He had a particularly effective moment when he said that he would release his tax returns against the advice of his attorney when Mrs. Clinton releases her 30,000 deleted emails.
Many pundits thought Trump’s strongest comments were delivered when he was discussing trade and retaining and repatriating jobs within the United States. On the other hand, Trump had a number of miss-steps especially when he lost his composure and appeared to get angry early in the first segment. After all, one of his primary communication objectives was to remain calm and to not come across as a bombastic bully.
Trump also missed a number of opportunities to go after Clinton. For instance, he never brought up her calling his supporters a “basket of deplorables”. He also created some scenarios where he responded incompletely or in a manner which would create additional questions. For instance, when Clinton made the statement that Trump hadn’t paid federal income tax in several years, he did not deny it. Instead he said “That makes me smart”.
As for Clinton, she delivered a solid, but not a stellar performance. For the most part, she retained her composure and stayed on message. She peppered her presentation with statistics about the economy and crime. She also went after Trump in a relatively measured manner when discussing why he hasn’t released his tax returns. She also appeared like she had “stamina” during the 90-minute debate, an important accomplishment given the emphasis on Mrs. Clinton’s health in recent weeks following her fainting spell at the September 11 memorial event and the subsequent revelation that she was suffering from pneumonia. On the other hand, she did not provide a satisfactory response when Trump pressed her on why she hadn’t done anything to stop ISIS given that it was during her tenure as secretary of state that ISIS went from infancy to maturity.
In ascertaining a report card for Clinton and Trump, it is also important to take a look at the role of the moderator. NBC’s Lester Holt received mixed reviews. While some praised Holt, many described him as being biased towards Clinton despite revelations prior to the debate that he is a registered Republican.
Trump surrogate former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani was upset with Holt’s telling Donald Trump during the debate that “stop and frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York”. “Stop and frisk is completely constitutional and the American people have been given the false impression that it isn’t,” Giuliani said. Giuliani went so far as to suggest that Trump skip the next debate unless he was promised that the moderator would act like a journalist and not an “incorrect, ignorant fact checker”.
Holt was also criticized for asking six follow up questions to Trump and none to Clinton. Furthermore, he asked Trump a question about a 40-year-old lawsuit accusing Trump’s business of racial bias in housing availability, but failed to ask Clinton a single question about her emails or the Clinton Foundation.
( Giuliani: I’d skip next debates if I were Trump )
Now that Clinton and Trump have had their first debate, the big question still remains. Did their debate performances convince any undecided voters to cast their vote for either of the respective candidates? My guess is that this first debate was just a preaching to the choir event. The next presidential debate is scheduled for October 9. A lot can happen in the polls in two weeks.
photo credit: Michael Vadon Donald J. Trump at Marriott Marquis NYC September 7th 2016 via photopin (license)