It's all finally over. The final debate of the 2016 presidential election is behind us, the last event of its kind after two other general election debates, nine Democratic primary debates, and 12 Republican primary debates. More than a year after Donald Trump began the election season in earnest by calling Rosie O’Donnell a fat pig on Fox News, the nights of chaotic sparring and inchoate yelling from presidential candidates have come to an end.
The final debate was more raw and pugilistic than any of its predecessors, with Clinton particularly at her most animated to date. The moderating could have used some work — like when Chris Wallace decided to mislead his viewers by implying the stimulus package hurt growth, when it actually increased it — but the result was remarkably substantive, and touched on some key issues that past debates neglected.
Here’s who finished ahead after the last debate of 2016, and who fell behind.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
The bar for victory for Hillary Clinton was quite low. She is winning the presidential election, by a lot. Any result that didn’t hurt her on net, or fundamentally change the race in a way that would give Trump a real shot, should count as a victory. All she had to do was not lose.
But she did better than that. After a more passive, less antagonistic performance in the second debate, she returned to and perfected her first debate strategy of purposely needling Trump in ways that appear benign to most viewers but provoke a massive, outsize response from Donald nonetheless.
Just look at her calling him a wuss for not bringing up his plan to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it in a meeting with the Mexican president:
When it comes to the wall that Donald talks about building, he went to Mexico. We had a meeting with the Mexican president. Didn't even raise it. He choked, then got into a Twitter war because the Mexican president said, “We're not paying for that wall.”
Sure enough, Trump took the bait, snapping back, “First of all, I had a very good meeting with the president of Mexico. Very nice man.” Not so bad, but Clinton had better bait waiting:
CLINTON: Well, that's because [Vladimir Putin] would rather have a puppet as president.
TRUMP: No puppet, no puppet.
CLINTON: And it's pretty clear --
TRUMP: You're the puppet.
CLINTON: It's pretty clear you won't admit —
TRUMP: No, you're the puppet.
Clinton successfully got a grown man to say “I know you are but what am I” on national TV. That’s partially a matter of Trump being a remarkably insecure person with very, very thin skin, but a lot of credit has to go to Clinton’s tactics.
The coup de grace, though, came late in the debate, when in the midst of a dry discussion of how to handle entitlement programs’ long-term solvency, Clinton dropped this bomb:
CLINTON: I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security trust fund — that’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it.
TRUMP: Such a nasty woman.
This was probably the most impressive bait of the night. It came not in the midst of an already heated exchange, but late, as Trump was exhausted, when it would catch him off guard. And sure enough, Trump replied with a gendered insult tailor-made for attack ads.
Clinton’s answers on policy were, as ever, mostly solid, if a little dry. The one exception was her evasion of Wallace’s very good question about whether she’d shoot down Russian planes in Syria as part of her proposed no-fly zone there. But Clinton was always going to show more fluency on issues of policy than Trump; that’s a given. What’s more surprising was how easily she trounced him as a matter of basic debating tactics.
Winner: The reproductive rights movement
This was the only one of the three general election debates to really cover abortion. The issue’s neglect had been a sore spot for activists on both sides of the issue, and so the mere fact that Wallace asked about it counted as a victory of sorts.
But Trump, as a Johnny-come-lately to the pro-life cause who set back decades of movement messaging by insisting that women should be punished for having abortions, naturally bungled his answer. He refused to say clearly that he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, despite that clearly being his position on the matter. So Wallace turned to Clinton and hammered her for opposing the federal ban on late-term dilation and extraction abortions as a senator.
Clinton’s response was genuinely remarkable, and unlike anything I’ve seen in mainstream American politics before:
The kinds of cases that fall at the end of pregnancy are often the most heartbreaking, painful decisions for families to make. I have met with women who toward the end of their pregnancy get the worst news one could get, that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term, or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy. I do not think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions. So you can regulate if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account.
Trump replied with trademark grace and understatement, saying that in Clinton’s America, “in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby” (which … no, ninth month abortions are not a thing). Clinton continued:
You should meet with some of the women that I've met with. Women I've known over the course of my life. This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. I do not believe the government should be making it. I've been to countries where governments forced women to have abortions like they did in China or force women to bear children like they used to do in Romania. I can tell you the government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith, with medical advice, and I will stand up for that right.
The most striking thing about this answer is that it not only asserts, unequivocally, the importance of a legal right to choose, but it also actively empathizes with women who have third-term abortions. Clinton asks viewers to put themselves in the shoes of a woman who, 31 weeks in, is told that her baby will not be able to breathe outside of the womb, and that she must either have an abortion or go through childbirth only to watch her child suffocate and die. Clinton asks them to consider that a woman in that situation who has an abortion might be not only exercising a legal right but making the right decision.
That is a far cry from the “safe, legal, rare” line of the 1990s, a line that Clinton has pointedly abandoned this year. It’s an even further cry from the Mario Cuomo/Tim Kaine position that abortion is a terrible tragedy that should nonetheless be legal. It’s the rhetorical manifestation of a shift in both the pro-choice movement and the Democratic Party, one that emphasizes visibility and acceptance of abortion, and one that challenges longstanding policies like the federal ban on abortion funding (which Clinton has promised to repeal). The days of abortion as a dirty little secret even among those who want to keep it legal are starting to fade.
Opposing the Hyde Amendment and dropping “rare” from the safe, legal, rare formulation were obvious moves for Clinton when she was running in the primary. But the fact that she continues to forcefully press the issue, and argues for sympathy for women getting the least popular kind of abortion there is, in the general election is more surprising. It was a major moment for reproductive rights and, at least in part, a sign of what it will mean for abortion rights to have a woman for whom these matters aren’t an abstract philosophical debate in the White House.
Winner: Vladimir Putin
The presidential debates before this one had largely tiptoed around the fact that a major foreign power is hacking into the private emails of US political figures in an attempt to throw the election to that country's preferred candidate. But in the third debate, the issue broke wide open, with Clinton pointing out the overwhelming evidence, from intelligence agencies and open source analysts alike, that the Russian government is directing hacks and sending the contents to WikiLeaks to influence the election, and likely to help Trump.
Trump responded by claiming first, falsely, that no one knows who did the hacks (this isn’t really a matter of serious debate, as Zack Beauchamp explains here), and then, remarkably, that his coziness with the Russian government should be a bonus:
I don't know Putin. This is not my best friend. But if the United States got along with Russia, wouldn't be so bad. Let me tell you, Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way. Whether it's Syria, you name it. Missiles. Take a look at the startup that they signed. The Russians have said, according to many, many reports, I can't believe they allowed us to do this. They create warheads and we can't. The Russians can't believe it. She's been outsmarted by Putin. All you have to do is look at the Middle East. They've taken over. We've spent $6 trillion. They've taken over the Middle East. She has been outsmarted and outplayed worse than anybody I've ever seen in any government whatsoever.
Now, obviously everything Trump is saying here is totally false. New START, the arms reduction treaty the Obama administration negotiated with Russia that Trump bafflingly refers to as “startup,” does not allow Russia to build more nuclear warheads. It requires both countries to reduce their warhead count. Russia has not taken over the Middle East.
But think about this exchange from Putin’s perspective. Your country got caught hacking emails to influence US elections. Americans’ opinion of you is understandably abysmal. You might reasonably expect the candidate you’re rooting for to abandon you to save face.
Trump doesn’t do that. Instead, he touts his desire to be better friends with Russia and repeatedly calls its leader smarter than American leadership. He is as much in Putin’s corner as he’s been this whole election.
For Putin, who’s apparently spent good money trying to get Trump elected, that’s a pretty solid reassurance that if Trump does win, he’ll get his money’s worth.
Loser: Donald Trump
Tomorrow, the lead story in every paper in the United States will be the fact that Donald Trump refused to pledge to accept the results of the presidential election, setting up a post-election battle even if, as the polls predict, Clinton crushes him by a comfortable margin.
As my colleague Andrew Prokop explains, this totally overwhelms whatever else Trump might have said or accomplished in the debate. Political scientists have found that after-the-fact spin has a huge effect on how viewers interpret debates — and the spin from this debate will largely be about the dangerous, unprecedented nature of Trump's candidacy and disrespect for democratic norms. Indeed, here’s the lead of a straight news story on the debate from Julie Pace and Lisa Lerer of the Associated Press:
Threatening a fundamental pillar of American democracy, Donald Trump refused to say Wednesday night that he will accept the results of next month's election if he loses to Hillary Clinton.
This was even the post-debate spin on Fox News.
Of course, that analysis assumes there might have been something for that moment to drown out. But Trump was rocky throughout, taking Clinton’s bait and knocking off characteristic offensive nonsense — “nasty woman,” “bad hombres” — that would have dominated the news cycle in the absence of his disturbing answer on accepting election results.
This was his last chance to turn around an election that he is poised to lose badly. And he blew it.
Loser: The democratic process
It’s sometimes said that the US has enjoyed 227 years of peaceful transitions of power. There’s a core of truth to that; an election result has never been violently overturned. But from the beginning of our democracy, violence was a crucial part of the election process. According to historian Jill Lepore, 1896 was the first year that there were no murders at polling places.
Historically, violence has primarily been a tool of white supremacists. During Reconstruction, as racially integrated governments in the South tried to protect the franchise of newly freed slaves, white Democrats formed militias, like the first instantiation of the Ku Klux Klan, to stop them by any means necessary. And 1868, the year Ulysses S. Grant (the only president to genuinely try to protect black civil rights after abolition) was first elected, was particularly brutal, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie notes.
“White gangs roamed New Orleans, intimidating blacks and breaking up Republican meetings," Columbia historian Eric Foner writes in his history of Reconstruction. "In St. Landy Parish, a mob destroyed a local Republican newspaper, drove young teacher and editor Emerson Bentley from the area, and then invaded the plantations, killing as many as 200 blacks. … Unable to hold meetings and fearful that attempts to bring out their vote would only result in further massacres, Georgia and Louisiana Republicans abandoned the Presidential campaigns."
A hundred years later, violence, from both state and non-state actors, remained an essential tool of white supremacy. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered by Klan members in 1964 for registering black voters. The marches from Selma to Montgomery, in which state troopers and private citizens bloodily beat demonstrators and a white gang murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, were explicitly targeted at Alabama’s policies of black voter suppression. White supremacists were eager and willing to use violent means to suppress the vote.
Since the Voting Rights Act’s passage, events like this have become mercifully rare. There are attempts to restrict suffrage by state legislators in ways that disproportionately affect black voters, but outright murder and bloodshed is uncommon. That is a hard-fought victory, one whose continuance is not guaranteed.
And Donald Trump, who has more openly and avidly embraced white nationalist ideas than any presidential candidate since George Wallace, appears committed to weakening the norms that prevent a return to the American history of election violence. Asked, point blank, by moderator Chris Wallace if he plans to accept the results of the election, Trump replied, "I will look at it at the time." When Wallace pressed him, he added, "I'll tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense, okay?"
Now, I don’t think Trump is going to call on his supporters to demonstrate against the election results and demand that Hillary Clinton not take office in the event that she is democratically elected. I mean, I wouldn’t put it past the guy; it just seems beyond the pale, even for him. But even in a world where he didn’t call for direct action, and merely dismissed the results and claimed they were illegitimate, his supporters could take it upon themselves to act of their own accord.
And they could act on Election Day, too. As one supporter promised the Boston Globe, “I’ll look for … well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American. I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”
That voter’s plans are chilling but nonviolent. Nonwhite voters at other polling places might not be so lucky. The election is being “rigged,” after all, according to Trump. Dramatic measures must be taken to prevent fraud.
Trump has, as Bouie says, been laying the groundwork for violence by his backers on Election Day and after for weeks now. And he used his last time before a huge nationwide TV audience to continue laying it.
This is reckless behavior anywhere, and particularly dangerous in a country whose history of violence against nonwhite voters is as long and horrifying as America’s.