After months of verbal sparring and racist demagoguery and fretting over email server management and telling each other to delete their accounts, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump finally met at Long Island’s Hofstra University for the first of three debates.
The political science suggests that the night’s proceedings will have a small, but potentially decisive, effect on the election, and that much of how voters interpret debates is determined by the hot takes they hear from TV news commentators in the immediate aftermath. And while it’s still early going, over the 90-minute debate it became clear that one candidate was dominant and the other blew it.
Here’s who ended the night better off than they came, and who lost ground.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
Judging from focus group and polling coming immediately after the debate, the consensus is pretty clear: Clinton won. And it's not hard to see why. She was obviously extremely well-prepared, stayed on script, and rebounded from critical questioning effectively.
But the reason I expect Clinton to leave the night better off has less to do with her own behavior and more to do with Trump’s. And in particular, it has a lot to do with someone who wasn’t on the stage Monday night: Rick Lazio.
Lazio, as the older among us remember, was the four-term Long Island Congress member who was Clinton’s general election opponent in her 2000 US Senate campaign. He was a bit of an emergency candidate, a last-minute replacement for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who dropped out due to his collapsing marriage and prostate cancer diagnosis. But Lazio was competitive. In June and July, Quinnipiac polls had Lazio and Clinton exactly tied. In August, Clinton opened up a small lead, but it was still anybody’s race.
Then on September 13, they debated. The defining moment of the evening came when Lazio brandished a pledge renouncing the use of "soft money," walked over to Clinton's podium, and demanded she sign it:
Initially, as Michael Tomasky recounts in Hillary's Turn, his history of this 2001 race, the conventional wisdom was that the moment was a big win for Lazio. The New York Daily News went with the headline, "IN HER FACE" over a photo of Lazio walking over to Clinton. The New York Post analysis was headlined "LAZIO PROVES TO BE A FORMIDABLE FOE."
But insta-polls told a different story. The Daily News's poll of 274 viewers found that they thought Clinton won by a 49 to 36 percent margin. Swing voters convened and surveyed by the Buffalo News concurred. And Clinton’s lead started to grow, before she eventually clobbered Lazio by 12 percentage points:
What happened? Basically, women watching the debate saw a man bullying and invading the personal space of his female opponent. And they were pissed.
Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers political scientist and expert on gender in politics, told Mother Jones's Nick Baumann and Pat Caldwell that Lazio versus Clinton is the textbook example she and other scholars use of how a male politician can alienate female voters. Lazio even told Baumann and Caldwell that he thought the debate tactic cost him ground. "It fits into a narrative that many of them have that Republicans are insensitive to women," he conceded.
Now, compare that with what happened to Trump and Clinton. What happened, again and again, was that Trump loudly interrupted Clinton, sometimes multiple times during a single answer. This exchange on tax cuts was illustrative:
CLINTON: We've looked at your tax proposals. I don't see changes in the corporate tax rates or the kinds of proposals you're referring to that would cause the repatriation, bringing back of the money stranded overseas.
TRUMP: Then you didn't read it.
CLINTON: I happen to support that in a way that will actually work to our benefit. But when I look at what you have proposed, you have what is called now the Trump loophole because it would so advantage you and the business you do. You've proposed—
TRUMP: Who gave it that name? Who gave it that name?
HOLT: I'm sorry. This is Secretary Clinton's two minutes.
CLINTON: A tax benefit for your family.
TRUMP: How much for my family? Lester? How much?
Clinton, to her credit, didn’t try to shout him down. She patiently made her points and grinned as he dug his own grave. When she responded, it was sardonically and slyly, refocusing the discussion on his manic performance:
CLINTON: I have a feeling by the end of this evening I'm going to be blamed for everything that's ever happened.
TRUMP: Why not?
CLINTON: Yeah. Why not. Just join the debate by saying more crazy things.
And she subtly baited Trump into overreaction, again and again. Few human beings in history have ever been as enraged by being referenced by their first name as Trump was by being called "Donald" repeatedly.
Winner: Lester Holt
"The IRS says you’re perfectly allowed to release when you're under audit."
That was the moment when Holt made it clear that he was not simply going to sit back and let the candidates he was moderating spout nonsense. At this point, Donald Trump’s excuse for not releasing his tax returns — that he’s facing an audit and can’t release them while that’s ongoing — has been debunked repeatedly. There’s no rule against releasing your returns while under audit, and Trump’s claims to the contrary have baffled tax experts.
The easy route would have been for Holt to move along. Ninety minutes isn’t enough time to cover every important issue in the election, so the impulse to cover more is natural. All of which makes it notable that Holt didn’t move along. He directly debunked Trump’s claim.
That didn’t stop Trump from repeating the claim, naturally. But it gave the audience an impartial voice that made it clear when they were being bullshitted, a voice that naturally had more credibility than Clinton’s alone.
It wasn’t just the audit exchange, either. When Trump lied and claimed he opposed the war in Iraq, Lester Holt told the audience, simply, "You supported the war in Iraq." When Trump ducked and weaved to avoid answering a straightforward question on how he’d bring back US manufacturing jobs, Holt held him to it, demanding, "Back to the question, specifically, how do you bring back the jobs? American manufacturers, how do you bring the jobs back?"
When Trump argued for a nationwide stop-and-frisk program, Holt was sure to mention that New York’s stop-and-frisk program was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that it led to racial profiling. Trump’s stammering response was nonsense (he insisted that the claim being struck down was wrong because it would’ve been overturned on appeal, which is not how any of this works), but Holt succeeded in making Trump and Clinton address the issue as a matter of racial bias.
And when he inevitably asked Trump about birtherism, Holt made the racial implications of Trump’s conspiracy-mongering clear, noting he was making these claims about the first black president and not about any of his white predecessors. He also pointed out that Trump continued to advocate birtherism as recently as this year, a half-decade after Obama’s longform birth certificate was released.
Holt clearly went into the debate thinking of his role as molding conversations, keeping them on central themes rather than minutiae, and distinguishing between fact and opinion. The latter didn’t always take the form of explicit fact-checking, but it did allow the actual discussions between Clinton and Trump to focus on each other's records and worldviews, and established a shared factual basis for the proceedings that came from neither candidate and which undecided viewers could accept.
Winner: Barack Obama
While Donald Trump was very clear Monday night that he believes America is a nightmarish hellscape of rampant crime, economic depression, and savage terrorism, he was weirdly kind to the man who, seemingly, is responsible for its wretched condition and whose citizenship Trump was questioning as recently as January.
Again and again, Trump attacked Clinton for even implied slights at President Obama. When Clinton explained her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump tried to make out her statements to be an insult to the president:
CLINTON: The facts are I did say I hoped it would be a good deal but when it was negotiated.
CLNTON: Which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn't. I wrote about that.
TRUMP: So is it President Obama's fault? Is it President Obama's fault?
CLINTON: Look, there are—
TRUMP: So is it President Obama's fault?
He alleged that Clinton’s campaign originated the birther smear, implying this was disrespectful to the president (even though he, uh, spread the smear as much as anyone). And he assailed Clinton for unfair tactics in the 2008 primary generally:
I got to watch … your debates for Barack Obama. You treated him with terrible disrespect. And I watch the way you talk now about how lovely everything is. It doesn't work that way. You were after him, you were trying to, you even sent out pictures of him in a certain garb, very famous pictures, I don't think you can deny that.
The pictures "in a certain garb" show Obama dressed as a Somali elder in a 2006 visit to northeastern Kenya, photos that the Clinton campaign circulated during the '08 primary race. The official position of the Clinton campaign was that spreading the photos wasn't racist, and in fact objecting was the really racist response. Campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement, "If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely."
Trump was, in effect, going beyond '08 Clinton and claiming that her choice of photos was disrespectful. Donald Trump, of all people, was attacking someone for being racially insensitive.
Clinton, naturally, was even more effusive about the president she served under:
The birther lie was a very hurtful one. And you know, Barack Obama is a man of great dignity. And I could tell how much it bothered him and annoyed him that this was being touted and used against him, but I like to remember what Michelle Obama said in her amazing speech at our Democratic National Convention. When they go low, we go high. And Barack Obama went high. …
My successor, John Kerry, and President Obama got a deal that put a lid on Iran's nuclear program. Without firing a single shot. That's diplomacy. That's coalition building. That's working with other nations.
There were moments when Trump critiqued the administration; he’s the Republican nominee, after all. He knocked Obama for pulling out of Iraq too quickly, for increasing the national debt, for gun violence in Chicago.
But when it came to birtherism in particular, the issue on which he has been historically the most critical of Obama, Trump fell silent, and at times even praised Obama, implying he’s a better ally than that perfidious Hillary.
One shouldn’t read too much into this; it’s largely just a tactic that Trump thought would be effective. But it underlines the fact that Obama is a rather popular president, with significantly higher favorability ratings than either major party nominee. There’s advantage to be gained, then, in painting yourself as in his corner, even as the Republican nominee. That’s a pretty great position for Obama to be in upon leaving office.
Loser: Donald Trump
Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he is always exactly who you expect him to be.
On Monday night, he was bombastic, dismissive of moderation and decorum, passionate, seemingly unrehearsed, and extremely attentive to perceived insults to himself or his businesses. He was, that is, Donald Trump.
And it’s possible to imagine a debate where that Donald Trump would win. Indeed, you don’t even have to imagine. Just go watch any of the plethora of GOP primary debates where he ate Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz’s lunch. He made them seem overeager, petty, and small and was able to tactically retreat and let them attack each other when convenient for him.
But for a variety of reasons, he wasn’t able to replicate that dynamic Monday night. It was a one-on-one debate; Gary Johnson didn’t make the polling cutoff, so Trump wasn’t able to pull back and let his opponents finish each other off. And, crucially, it was against a woman.
Recall that Trump’s most notable defeat in the primary debates was against Carly Fiorina, because of roughly the same "domineering male candidate versus respectful woman" dynamic that sabotaged his efforts against Clinton Monday night. The problem was deeper than just that, though. A lot of Trump’s primary campaign insults were deeply gendered in a way that best applied to men.
Trump is very, very, very good at performing masculinity in a way that belittles and minimizes fellow men. He attacked Rubio for wearing "heels," dubbed him Little Marco, and all but told a debate audience that he had a bigger dick. He repeated a rally-goer who called Cruz a "pussy" and told a crowd that he was a "soft, weak, little baby." He got off on dismissing opponents as weak and feminine.
That tactic might be effective within the minority of the electorate that votes in Republican primaries, and against other men, but it simply does not translate against a female candidate and when targeting a wider swath of Americans. It doesn’t come across as ribald or playful; it comes across as cruel and bullying. Which isn’t to say that using these tactics against Cruz and Rubio wasn’t cruel and bullying, but thanks to the patriarchy and norms of chivalry, there was less potential that Trump would get called on that.
Trump’s overt gendered insults were present but relatively few; his condescending comment to Clinton that he would call her "Secretary" because "I want you to be very happy" is just about the only one that stands out. But even that, combined with his extremely aggressive interruptions, was enough to appear jarring and like punching down.
Loser: the wall
If you hadn’t been paying attention to this election and watched Monday night’s proceedings, you could be forgiven for not realizing that Donald Trump is the most vociferously anti-immigration presidential nominee in America is at least a half-century. The topic just didn’t come up.
The closest Trump came to giving his usual shtick on this was a riff on crime, alleging, "We have gangs roaming the street and in many cases they are illegally here, illegal immigrants, and they have guns and they shoot people." But he didn’t bring up the wall. He didn’t bring up his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US. He didn’t bring up the dangers of refugees. The raison d’être of his entire campaign was completely absent from the debate.
Viewers attracted to Trump’s cable news–friendly brand of white nationalism got a small scrap in the form of Trump insisting upon a national stop-and-frisk regime and more emphasis on law and order. But the moments of outreach were dominated by moments of alienation. Take Trump attacking Clinton for sending out a photo of Obama in Somali garb. Or the moment he attacked Clinton for referring to young black men as "superpredators":
I want to bring up the fact that you were the one who brought up the term superpredator about young black youth. And that's a term that's been horribly met. I think you've apologized for it. But I think it was a terrible thing to say.
You can all but imagine a young alt-right adherent watching that and thinking, "Did Donald Trump seriously just knock Clinton for committing a linguistic microaggression?"
It’s obvious why Trump made this message pivot. He’s likely maxed out his white support, certainly his support from less-educated whites, and needs to expand to educated whites and, if at all possible, black and Hispanic voters. He’s going to lose the nonwhite vote badly — Republicans always do — but he needs to get it closer if he’s to have a shot.
But he faces a problem in making that pivot, a problem sort of similar to the one identified in business guru Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen noted that legacy companies face a problem adopting new technologies, in that they still will typically be making most of their money selling older products, and so, in the short and medium run, pivoting resources and energy to new products risks jeopardizing the company’s main source of revenue.
So, for instance, it was hard for Kodak to pivot to digital cameras because it was making its money in film — but the inertia that caused meant that it couldn’t catch up to competitors like Canon and Nikon and, by the time digital cameras were a bigger market than film, Kodak was totally blown out.
Presidential campaigns aren’t business ventures, but there’s an analogous situation facing Trump. His bread and butter, the voters he successfully cultivated in the primary, are white, less educated Republicans who are alarmed by immigration and skeptical of racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter. That’s his base, and he can’t afford to lose it. At the same time, he has no hope unless he makes inroads with nonwhite voters. And appealing to nonwhite voters risks weakening his position with his white, anti-immigration base. He can’t pivot to digital without hurting his standing in the film camera market.
To some extent, Trump can afford to take his base for granted; real-world companies face competitors, but the Clinton campaign isn’t serious competition for committed immigration opponents. But that risks diminishing their enthusiasm and eagerness to turn out to vote. And if Trump continues the strategy he debuted Monday night, that’s exactly what we can expect to happen.