There seems to be a fairly clear consensus in the wake of the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on September 26 that her greater experience and preparation paid off. Trump seemed to hold his own at first, but as soon as the debate moved away from trade and the economy, the limits of his improvisational approach became clear. Not only did Clinton have a far greater command of detail and policy (perhaps unsurprising considering her decades of policy experience and his total lack thereof), but she seemed to get sharper over the course of 90 minutes, while he became more agitated and distracted.
But despite the huge level of media attention, as a general rule the extent to which debates impact the ultimate outcome tends to be extremely limited. Like so much else this year, this time could be different. Yet, the history of election year polling suggests that any serious and long-term change in the polls traceable to the debate is unlikely.
That is partly due to the fact that relative to the share of the electorate, there are few truly undecided voters – though at least some research suggests that there are more this year than there were at the same point in the 2012 election. So the primary goal of both candidates between now and November 8 will be to convince their wavering supporters to donate, volunteer and – at a bare minimum – come out and vote. On that front, the debate will give Clinton supporters something to rally around, and will likely drive her poll numbers higher over the next week or two. But we are still a month and a half from the election, and there are two more debates and dozens of news cycles still to run.
But even if the debate is unlikely to have fundamentally changed many minds or the shape of the election, it may nevertheless have some significant impact on the shape of the race over the weeks to come. A number of things were seeded during the debate that the Clinton campaign will be working hard to keep front and center in the media.
One was Clinton’s mention, late in the debate, of Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe contestant who Trump had bullied about her weight. The Clinton campaign had clearly planned for this hit, immediately releasing a video with Machado recounting (in Spanish, with English subtitles) her experience. It was a blunt attempt to provoke Trump into a harmful overreaction – and Trump took the bait, attacking Machado during the debate and on TV again next morning. His reflexive criticism of someone outside the political sphere echoes previous incidents, particularly his attacks on a federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, who was hearing a suit against him and the parents of a Muslim soldier, Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq, both of which led to a nosedive in his polling numbers.
Another was Trump’s incoherent answer to a question about President Obama’s birthplace. His history of (falsely) suggesting that Obama wasn’t born in the US worked to Trump’s advantage when he was attempting to build himself a constituency within the Republican Party, since it set him apart from more established politicians. But the embrace of a fringe conspiracy theory hurts him with the wider voting public, especially with African-Americans. This is an issue Trump implicitly admitted several weeks ago with a bizarre press conference in which he announced that he accepted the President’s real birthplace in the midst of promoting his new Washington DC hotel. His attempts to put the issue behind him without alienating his core supporters have put his campaign in an impossible rhetorical position.
Put simply, it is hard to imagine these topics helping Trump’s already poor standing with demographic groups other than white men. And Clinton, who has not always excelled when on the offensive, deftly put them on display in front of the largest possible audience in the debate.
But the bigger potential headache for Trump coming out of the debate is his taxes. Breaking with four decades of precedent for presidential candidates, Trump has adamantly refused to release his tax returns, meaning that voters are largely operating in the dark when it comes to Trump’s business practices, the sources of his income, his actual net worth and his charitable giving. For someone whose sole claim to qualifying experience is his business career, this is a notable lack of transparency.
Trump has largely skated past this issue up to this point, thanks in no small part to the fact that his candidacy is so idiosyncratic that the political media simply haven’t been able to focus on one thing. But Clinton succeeded in bringing the issue to light in front of an estimated 100 million viewers – and to what must have been the glee of her strategists, Trump’s reply implied not only that he did not actually pay federal taxes, but that not doing so was “smart”. In light of the ongoing series of revelations from the Washington Post about tax irregularities in Trump’s family foundation, this all but guarantees that Trump’s personal finances are going to remain a live issue for the election home stretch.
To state the obvious, the election isn’t over. The polls directly before the debate showed Clinton with only a very slim lead, and extreme partisanship protects Trump from a true poll collapse. Time is growing short, but in a close election, changes big enough to impact the outcome can happen relatively fast.
But by the same token, Clinton has led in polling averages for almost the entire duration of this election, only ceding the lead momentarily in the wake of the Republican National Convention. Trump needs to change this underlying structural fact to become the favourite, and last night was probably his biggest remaining chance to do so. The fact that he utterly failed is perhaps the greatest takeaway of all from the debate.