Monday night, Hillary Clinton demonstrated a strong contrast against Donald Trump in terms of preparation and knowledge, puncturing Trump’s reality show bubble and disheartening conservatives who’d gone all in on the theory that she’s since such a flawed candidate she might lose to an ignorant boor.
It’s time to stop being surprised by this.
Hillary Clinton is good at debates. She lost the 2008 primary election to Barack Obama, but many of her best moments came in the context of debates — especially a crucial post-Iowa performance that powered her to a New Hampshire win and kept her in the game. She won the 2016 primary rather handily, and she did so in no small part thanks to debates. Bernie Sanders drew bigger crowds to his rallies and outspent her on TV ads, but he was never able to shake the faith of Clinton loyalists when the two stood side by side on a stage.
Nobody is good at everything, and certainly Clinton isn’t. But she is good at debates. She beat Trump soundly in the first debate, and if he deigns to show up to the next two, she’ll probably beat him there as well.
Here are five reasons why.
1) The debate frames the choice
The inordinate media attention on the “Trump supporter” as a social type has tended to create an exaggerating impression of the number of Trump supporters out there. But pollsters find that under 40 percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of Trump, while 59 percent have an unfavorable impression.
If Clinton could win the votes of the 59 percent of people who have an unfavorable view of Trump, she would end up slightly outperforming Ronald Reagan’s 1984 vote haul, generating a landslide win on a scale we haven’t seen in generations. Which is just to say that while making people think worse of your opponent is always useful in an election, Clinton is well into diminishing returns territory here.
The reason she’s not currently projected to win in a landslide isn’t that obdurate “Trump supporters” need to be shown the error of their ways; it’s that lots of people who aren’t Trump supporters aren’t yet committed to voting for her.
This makes the basic framing of a presidential debate favorable to her. Two candidates, alone on a stage with a moderator and a respectful audience, simulcast on all the broadcast and cable news networks, frames the election as an important choice between two candidates. You’re either for Trump or you’re with her. It’s an inherently more favorable way of looking at the race than the vague four-way popularity contest in which hazy doubts about Clinton’s email server management are placed on par with Trump’s total lack of qualification.
2) Clinton knows a lot of stuff
Even Hillary Clinton’s sharpest critics will concede that she is exceptionally well-informed. She’s been around American politics for a long time, she’s worked in a staggering range of political and politics-adjacent jobs, and, unusually for a presidential candidate, she’s spent a lot of time in what were in effect staff jobs rather than principal jobs — roles in which knowing what she’s talking about was a key part of the position.
This does not always help her in concrete political terms.
But the debate format, in which the participants simply can’t know in advance what they’re going to be asked to talk about, gives a strong edge to people who are broadly knowledgeable. Other Clinton opponents find themselves repeatedly — and somewhat awkwardly — trying to steer against the current and return to their main campaign themes. Clinton is perfectly happy to discuss just about any issue, anytime, and it shows.
3) Clinton does the work to prepare
Watching the debate live, what stands out is what happened.
Watch it a second time, however, and you’ll be struck by what didn’t happen. Trump forgot to mention his signature issue, immigration. He also didn’t mention FBI Director James Comey’s damning characterization of Clinton’s decision to use a private email server. There was no Benghazi, no “Hillary wants to take your guns,” no pay-to-play foundation allegations.
And the reason is pretty clear: Trump wasn’t prepared because he’s lazy.
If you’re in a debate and you’re lucky, the moderator will ask a question that steers the conversation to a topic you want to talk about. But you can’t just count on that. You need to have a list, in your head, of the key things you want to steer the conversation to and what other issues might offer you an avenue in.
Clinton, like a lot of pioneering women in male-dominated fields, is a super-preparer. That means not only is she fluent in the policy issues but she had a game plan for pivoting into things like Trump’s tax returns and Trump’s stiffing of small-business owners, and a setup for a devastating video about Trump’s bullying harassment of Alicia Machado.
Running through all these different scenarios and readying your approach for whatever happens is hard, and it takes time. Clinton puts in the time.
4) Debates are a captive audience
The best, most appealing version of Hillary Clinton is the one who is showing off her love of developing specific policy ideas to address specific concerns.
One of her problems as a public figure is that this most likable version of Clinton does not make for great television. Television producers are relatively unlikely to air Clinton in policy wonk mode, not because it’s a conspiracy but because it’s bad for ratings.
But a primetime debate is inherently interesting. One featuring Donald Trump is even more interesting. The networks are committed to airing whatever Clinton happens to say, and viewers are more or less certain to stay tuned in. That gives Clinton an opportunity to wax a bit in ways that would ordinarily send the networks scurrying to find some talking heads to cut to.
5) Clinton contains multitudes
Hillary Clinton’s biggest political skill is a talent for coalition building and collaboration, which sometimes hurts her when it comes to crafting set-piece speeches.
Good writing requires a kind of clarity, precision, and editing to ensure that you have a singular clear point that everything is supporting. Clinton does not like to oversimplify and does like to mention that she actually has a plan to address that one obscure and loosely related issue, so she often struggles to maintain focus on a big overarching theme or idea.
Debates, however, are inherently disjointed. Candidates used to seeing the forest rather than the trees often seem a bit lost at times — Trump, for example, seemed at one point to confess that he’d totally avoided paying federal taxes — having wandered far off script. Clinton is great at trees and doesn’t need a map. She’s down to debate anything, a quality that also made Trump’s attacks on her “stamina” appear absurd. After 90 minutes of going toe to toe on a random grab bag of issues, she’d clearly have been happy to do 90 more. Trump had about 10 minutes of material before he got confused.
Trump is in trouble
None of this means that debates alone are going to put Hillary Clinton in the White House.
Debates matter, but they don’t matter that much, and Trump certainly avoided any truly spectacular Ford-scale gaffes. His problem, however, is that he’s already behind in the race, albeit narrowly, and he’s behind in terms of cash on hand and field organization.
When you’re losing, you need to make something happen to help you win. The debates aren’t the only chance to do that, but they are probably the best and most obvious opportunity to do so. Monday night, Trump utterly failed — Clinton showcased her more appealing sides, while Trump showed himself to be both ignorant and easily rattled.
Clinton’s track record as a debater and the inherent nature of the format makes it very unlikely that Trump will be able to turn things around in subsequent conflicts.