There have been presidential debates in every election since 1976, but there has never been a spectacle like what we saw this evening because we have never seen a candidate as fragile and unprepared as Donald Trump. I said yesterday that the bar for Trump was set so low it was glued to the floor, yet he was unable to surpass it. Trump showed up for an episode of reality TV but what he found was a formidable opponent who came prepared for a job interview in front of one-hundred million people. Set aside for a moment Trump’s word salad answers, turn off the volume and look at body language and facial expressions. Trump was angry and defensive to the point where he couldn’t control his rage. Clinton was poised, practiced and in charge. She looked like a president. He looked petulant. If there had been a mercy rule, this debate would have been called by 10 pm.
We said yesterday that Hillary faced a challenge in debating an unpredictable and unconventional candidate, and I suggested that her best strategy might be to pick at Trump’s ego with calculated putdowns without appearing overbearing. She did that and more, controlling the debate from start to finish and aggressively attacking Trump’s character and accomplishments. We said Trump would have to refrain from being overly aggressive to avoid coming across as hostile, and I expected him to exercise some restraint, at least at first. But he couldn’t control himself. He spent the debate with his face contorted in anger, and he constantly interrupted and lashed out at Clinton. He appeared the bully while Hillary remained calm. To say this will not go over well with the white educated women he needs to win Pennsylvania is a bit of an understatement.
I was surprised by how much this debate resembled the primary debates where Trump avoided policy specifics and self-restraint. Only this time his opponent dominated him, and he reacted by becoming increasingly unhinged. Much can and will be written about the questionable content of many of his answers in contrast to Clinton’s cogent responses, but I think the biggest takeaway will be the contrast between Clinton’s presidential cool and Trump’s disqualifying temperament. It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with the aftermath of being humiliated on such a large stage. His history suggests he will try to strike back angrily to reassert his dominance, potentially compounding the damage he did tonight. As we said yesterday, debates historically do not determine elections. The structure of this contest has been stable and the electorate remains deeply divided. But too many people watched Trump reinforce the doubts they harbor about him for tonight’s fiasco not to move the polls in Clinton’s direction, and for someone who is incapable of losing that will be a heavy burden to bear.