Which Candidate Helped His or Her Cause Most?
Most people--and virtually all of the media--treat debates like boxing matches. Who won?
I don't think that's the most apt question unless one candidate has imploded. But to answer it, I would say Hillary Clinton won, though on points, not a knockout. Donald Trump was still standing when the final bell sounded.
Since no one scored a knockout, the most important questions are, "What did each candidate need to accomplish?" and “Did either one succeed?”
What Trump Needed to Accomplish
The Republican nominee needed to show he has the temperament and judgment to be entrusted with the vast power of the presidency. That means he had to be calm and deliberate while still pushing his positions. Simply walking onto the debate stage is an important step in appearing "presidential." But he did nothing to advance his case on that temperament-and-judgment score during the debate itself.
Instead, he behaved exactly as he did in the primaries, both in his answers and in his non-verbal reactions. That approach will reassure his base but do little to persuade undecided voters. Those are the ones who had questions in the first place.
On the secondary issues, I thought Trump put forth most of his signature viewpoints, but he was both too aggressive personally toward Clinton and too passive in skipping over the former secretary of state’s major vulnerabilities (her emails, private server, and the Clinton Foundation). He brought up her "stamina," but that was a misfire. She had a great answer waiting. In any case, her stamina won’t be an election issue unless Trump uses her secrecy to fuel suspicion about some undisclosed illness.
His most successful line of attack was to respond to each of her policy ideas by saying, "You've been in Washington forever. Why haven't you already done it?" That’s a great question, and it is one any “change” candidate has to pound home.
On the law-and-order issue, Trump was actually quite effective. The political danger for him (and any candidate on the right) is that it can look punitive against whole communities--vulnerable minority communities. Trump was very explicit in saying those were precisely the communities he wanted most to protect.
It is hard to know if that benign framing, plus his recent visits to black areas, will cut into Clinton's overwhelming lead in those communities, but it will play well among undecided voters, who largely understand the issue as one of protecting all law-abiding citizens from violent gangs.
The law-and-order issue will continue to resonate, both because it is a major voter concern and because moderator Lester Holt stepped in to support Clinton’s incorrect statement that stop-and-frisk is flatly unconstitutional.
What Clinton Needed to Accomplish
Hillary Clinton needed to do three things, beyond her aspirational goal of disqualifying Trump as a plausible president.
First, she need to shore up support from various segments of Barack Obama's winning coalition.
Second, she needed to show that she will be a steady, experienced, competent leader, in sure command of the issues, and, crucially, to draw a clear contrast with Trump on that. If she could show a “likable” side while prosecuting the case, all the better.
Finally, she needed to convey a positive vision for America going forward, some overarching vision that has been missing in her campaign so far.
How did she do?
Trump had been making inroads into her "Obama coalition," so she made direct appeals to women and especially to African-Americans, explicitly calling Trump a racist and lacerating him on the birther issue. She raised those issues pointedly and effectively. The question now is whether her charges annihilate Trump's law-and-order appeal to people who live in poor, dangerous communities.
No one doubts Clinton will be a steady, experienced leader. But she did not rebut Trump's explicit charge that her experience is bad experience, or his stress on her responsibility for Iraq and Libya. His charge that “yes, she’s experienced but it is bad experience" could be a major theme in October.
Still, Trump's whole approach to the debate raised questions about whether he can summon up a calm, prudent approach on major policy issues. Clinton raised the question herself in talking about NATO and nuclear weapons, but it was mostly Trump who hurt himself, another familiar theme in the campaign.
As for projecting some degree of likability, she was very successful. For such a high-stakes event, Clinton seemed relaxed and her smiles did not seem forced. If her goal was to convince people they could stand watching her for the next four years, she helped herself.
Clinton skipped lightly over one of the gaping holes in her campaign: What does she really want to do, other than "stay the course"? Donald Trump did not directly attack her on that lack of vision, but he repeatedly skewered her as a lifetime politician, committed to existing policies. That’s his single most effective theme in a “change” election. Clinton did not offer her only possible retort, which is, "I can actually use my years of experience to lead our country forward in these ways . . ."
Neither candidate accomplished all their major goals.
Clinton probably shored up her minority constituencies by her direct attacks on Trump, especially on the birther issue, where he is vulnerable.
Her ability to press home her attacks while still seeming likable could well reverse her recent downward slide in the polls. But it is not enough to weaken Trump badly.
He lives to fight another day. He will continue to fight like the Donald Trump of the Republican primaries. He is not backing away from his stance as a full-throated, often abrasive nationalist, an outsider who touts his successful businesses as proof enough that he can get things done.
He may have learned that a little formal debate prep is not such a bad thing. He left a lot of his opponent’s vulnerabilities unexploited. She hit all of his. The question now is whether Clinton accomplished enough to stop her slide.