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Donald Trump couldn’t stop lurking behind Hillary Clinton, and it ruined his night

It was probably an unintentional error, but it was a big one.

Candidates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Hold Second Presidential Debate At Washington University
Donald Trump watches Hillary Clinton give an error at the town hall debate.
Photo by Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Donald Trump was better in the second presidential debate than he was in the first, in that he didn’t let himself get distracted by Hillary Clinton’s attempts to bait him, and in that he mostly just spent the entire evening talking about whatever he wanted to talk about, instead of what he’d been asked about.

But I’m not sure any of that matters, whether you think he won on style, or lost on substance, or anything of the sort.

This was what mattered.

Trump’s lack of preparation when it comes to debates, which proved fatal in the first debate, was less in evidence during the town hall meeting. But it made itself most known whenever he wasn’t speaking. Instead of returning to his chair to sit (as Clinton usually did), he would stand up, wander around, lean against the back of his chair, and just generally loom.

Needless to say, for someone who is facing controversy over statements he made dealing with sexual assault, it wasn’t a great look. And for someone who built his success atop his comfort at being on camera, it was a reminder that his reality TV skills, which worked so well in a multi-candidate debate format, fail him when it comes to two-candidate showdowns.

Trump just didn’t know what he was doing, but it didn’t come off that way

It’s hard to say that Trump was trying to do this to rattle Clinton. When the debate feed cut to wide shots of the whole stage, it was obvious he was generally trying to stay near his chair, and she was moving to speak to whichever audience member had asked a question.

But there’s a reason you go back to your chair and sit facing away in the town hall setting. It’s more intimate. Its staging is designed to create a faux connection between candidates and voters. It pretends to bring America back to its imagined roots as a collection of small towns with deep civic involvement.

Trump’s natural inclination to turn toward the action and watch whatever’s happening is one that most of us would share. But because of the way the cameras were capturing the evening, it was rare for Clinton to have a shot where Trump wasn’t wandering about in the background, or seeming like he was going to reach out and tap her on the shoulder to unnerve her.

Sometimes, this resulted in his body sliding into frame without his head accompanying it, which is even more eerie.

If Trump had sat down, he still would have been onscreen in some capacity. But we would have been looking at an unmoving target. He would have literally blended into the background. The handful of times Clinton turned up in the background of a shot where Trump was speaking, she was doing just that.

But by standing and swaying and moving in the background of shots, Trump drew more attention to himself than he really wanted to, and it was usually unwelcome. Particularly early on, when Clinton was obviously trying to rattle him by talking about how unfit he was to be president, he kept pacing, and I thought, for sure, he was going to walk right over to her and yell in her face — exactly the move that did in Clinton’s first Senate opponent, Rick Lazio.

Many of Trump’s errors are ones that are designed to draw him closer to his base, which is filled with angry voters who feel the government has failed them. The media’s chief failure has been to never understand how his lies are like laser-guided missiles designed to connect with the heart of his base. Whether this is a good overall electoral strategy seems dubious, but, say, the desire for the media to fact-check Trump and send him packing ignores that for most of his voters, the media isn’t to be trusted.

But you don’t win elections by appealing solely to your base. You need to either bring in a hefty percentage of Americans who wouldn’t normally vote, or you need to convince moderates, undecideds, and members of the other party who might be curious about your message. And when it comes to that sort of thing, presentation matters.

I don’t think Trump’s constant stepping into the background of Clinton’s shots was necessarily intentional, but his presence was constant and unnerving. I can’t imagine watching this, with the news of his Access Hollywood tape in mind, and not being a little uneasy about the whole thing. The post-debate spin might suggest the big stories of the night were in Clinton and Trump’s statements, but I’d bet within a few days, Trump’s lurking presence will be all we’re talking about.

Watch: How presidential debates are won and lost