Early media reactions and focus groups seem to indicate that viewers think Donald Trump responded to the questions better than Hillary Clinton in the second presidential debate — or at least better than in the first debate.
But if this town hall format was about pushing candidates to answer the questions of a few American voters, let’s get something straight:
The questions didn’t matter.
If they did, it would matter a whole lot more whether the candidates answered the questions. That would actually play a part in who “won.” But it didn’t. Our analysis shows that Clinton spent an astounding amount of time actually answering the questions from the moderators and the audience, while Trump was more concerned with meandering through his own thoughts.
Let’s stop pretending this election is even remotely about who has the policies that will best help Americans, or even about the questions Americans have for the candidates. We’ve stopped even feigning that that’s the case. If Trump won this debate, it’s because he was able to completely avoid talking about both his transgressions and his policies, and instead pivoted to talking about established narratives about Clinton. And if Clinton lost this debate, it’s because she spent too much time answering questions — especially with boring policy details.
There isn’t an incentive to answer the questions
The candidates stayed on focus talking about health care reform, Islamophobia, and energy policy. But the transcript reveals just how easily the debate became about disparaging the other candidate. Both candidates share some blame, but when a policy question was asked, Trump seemed to lead the conversation astray with a common pattern:
- Clinton talks through the details of her proposals: For example, when an audience member asked about what the candidates would prioritize in choosing a Supreme Court justice, Clinton pointed out several key criteria.
- Trump meanders through a partial answer, but it’s mostly off-topic attacks: In the Supreme Court example, he talked about the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, then pivoted to Clinton not supporting the Second Amendment — and then pivoted from there to talk about how he is self-financing his campaign.
- Clinton responds to attack: Clinton is forced to talk about her stance on gun control, even though only a very small portion of Trump’s response was about guns.
Trump’s attacks appear to be far stickier than Clinton’s answers, which means she has to spend time correcting the record. It goes the other way, too, but just not as often.
When the questions were about Trump’s past, he was able to say a lot of words without actually answering the question — and then pivot to an attack on Clinton. For example, Trump was asked how he has changed since he was 59, and he spent most of the time attacking Bill Clinton’s past and then Hillary Clinton’s past. Because Trump doesn’t answer the question, Clinton attacks Trump’s record with women and Muslims. And Trump responds by invoking Sidney Blumenthal’s name.
So instead of answering the question, both candidates understand it as: This is the time to attack the other person onstage — because, apparently, getting in those jabs is what “wins” a debate.
You could blame the candidates for not staying on the question, but so often there isn’t an incentive to do so. Moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz did about as good of a job as any moderators in pushing the candidates to answer the questions, but it still resulted in, well, this.
If the questions don’t matter, the format is broken
There are some questions where both candidates stay on topic, but that doesn’t mean both candidates made logical arguments.
The interactive below lets you focus in on the actual answers, and it exposes Trump’s lack of knowledge on virtually every issue. There are no details there, just broad sweeping statements of what is good and what is bad — of who is good and who is bad. It’s the type of conversation that Trump is clearly uncomfortable having. It’s where only Clinton establishes herself as the candidate who has the requisite knowledge to do the job.
So focusing on those portions make Trump look like he’s out of his league.
But he pivoted to things like Clinton’s past and the dangers of ISIS, almost doing a word association that ends up being contentless — “just words,” as he would put it. Instead of talking about what he would do, he talked about what Clinton and President Obama haven’t been doing. It’s the arena in which he’s most comfortable, and he’s consistently been able to move in that direction within the playing field of a presidential debate.
We used to buy the idea that the moderators — and by extension, the voters — could keep the debate within certain boundaries with the types of questions we asked. But when the questions stop mattering, then it’s disempowering to voters. It means the format is broken.