Down big in the polls, Donald Trump needs a dramatic change in Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate against Hillary Clinton if he wants a chance of winning the presidential election on November 8.
The first two debates haven’t exactly gone great for him so far. Most observers thought Hillary Clinton won the first one handily, in part by goading Trump into counter-productive outbursts against Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe contestant he had insulted. (New York magazine’s Jon Chait memorably described Trump’s erratic denials on the debate stage as resembling those of “villains in a Disney movie.”)
Reviews of the second debate were more mixed. But many of them centered on how Clinton was able to make Trump look like a “lecherous, potentially abusive threat to women” and a “skeevy tax evader,” as Vox’s Dylan Matthews noted.
The stakes will be high tonight, even if polls increasingly show Clinton already has a lock on the election. (As I’ve written before, a complete Trump meltdown could so depress Republican turnout that it gives Democrats back control of the House and the Senate.)
But with final showdown approaching, here’s how you can watch the first and second presidential debates ahead of tonight’s face off.
The first debate: Clinton won by goading Trump over Miss Universe contestant
If Clinton wins the presidential election handily on November 8, we may look back at the first presidential debate as the decisive turning point.
It wasn’t just that Clinton came off as better prepared, that the majority of viewers said she won, or that she managed a surprisingly artful “shimmy” after nailing one of the debate answers.
It’s that she laid what Vox’s Matt Yglesias called a “surprisingly intricate trap” for Trump — one he stumbled right into — by bringing up dormant accusations that Trump had insulted the weight of former Miss Universe contestant Alicia Machado:
One of Clinton’s key campaign themes since the convention has been that it’s too easy to get under Donald Trump’s skin. In her nomination acceptance speech, Clinton said “a man you can bait with a tweet” lacks the composure necessary to be an effective president.
Much of the debate was dedicated to proving that point, with Clinton gently needling Trump by calling him “Donald” and mentioning the $14 million he borrowed from his father.
The Machado gambit fit the same mold. Trump’s initially response to was dig back deeper into his years-old and completely irrelevant feud with comedian Rosie O’Donnell. Then this morning, still smarting over the attack, he raised the stakes by launching new attacks on Machado’s character and weight.
As Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote, the fact that Clinton telegraphed the Machado move from a mile away didn’t stop Trump for falling for the gambit. “Clinton did everything but spray paint ‘THIS IS A TRAP’ on the side of Trump Tower,” Klein wrote. “And still Trump fell for it. And fell for it. And fell for it.”
It wasn’t just Vox’s assessment of how the first debate went. Wrote the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza:
Clinton was head and shoulders better than Trump. She was, unsurprisingly, very well prepared — using a slew of facts and figures to not only make her positive case but also to slam Trump. She was terrific in bashing Trump on taxes. Her response to Trump's attack on her temperament — the shoulder shimmy! — was effective. ....
And, on her biggest weakness — her decision to establish a private email server at the State Department, Clinton skated. She delivered a full and unequivocal apology — what a concept! — and the debate moved on without much of a stir. This was a clear win for her on virtually every front.
The second debate: Clinton plays prevent defense
Clinton’s victory in the second debate was less decisive, and polling about who won suggested a more mixed result.
The debate was held shortly after Trump’s now-infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” comments were first published by the Washington Post. Republican elites wanted Trump to gracefully apologize for what he’d said. But as Vox’s Libby Nelson noted, he wasn’t exactly capable of doing so:
Trump at first seemed willing to offer a mea culpa for his remarks, agreeing they were untoward “locker room” comments. But when pressed by moderators, he pivoted. This was not what his detractors had meant.
But perhaps they shouldn’t be surprised. This isn’t the first time Trump has lashed out when backed in a corner, ready to accuse his opponent of the exact sin he should own. Even with the fate of his campaign at stake, he can’t seem to just apologize.
He vehemently denied ever acting on this “locker room talk” during the second debate. Just a few days later, two women in the New York Times described assaults much as Trump himself described them in the leaked audio.
Since then, at least 12 more women have come forward to accuse Trump not just of speaking about sexual assault but actually committing it. It’s going to be tough, to say the least, for Trump to reverse his debate fortunes in just one go.