Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.
The first presidential debate on Monday was the topic of much speculation and anxiety. This was the first time that the candidates were in direct conversation leading up to voting day, and the night therefore carried a high degree of gravity for the momentum of the election. Hillary needed to keep her cool and not bite at any of Trump’s taunting, and to shine a light on Trump’s weakness in the area of specific policies. Trump needed to keep the conversation as vague as possible, maintaining his tried-and-true method of appealing more to voters’ feelings and to remind people why they don’t like Hillary’s character. At this point it seems pretty clear that Trump’s character and loose relationship with facts cannot scare away his voter base, so the only thing it seems might diminish his appeal is if he is depicted as less strong or if he gets bested in his own style of witty zingers. Hillary’s appeal, on the other hand, is tied to her experience and her image as the candidate of policy and experience, and therefore voters would be more likely to turn on her if she sinks to Trump’s level of taunting.
The debate itself seemed a best case scenario for Clinton. In addition to his blatant disregard for the truth that host Lester Holt desperately attempted to hold him to (especially related to the birther movement and to releasing his tax forms), Trump failed to get Hillary to falter. She remained focused on policies and demonstrated her qualifications, while maintaining her composure and even making light of Trump’s accusations. While historically she has often been by voters as stern and even unlikable, the debate showed a Clinton that was not to be baited. This only exacerbated Trump’s loss. While she continued to illustrate her experience and mastery of the issues, Trump’s responses consisted of a mixture of blaming Hillary for everything ranging from ISIS to the state of our infrastructure, to seemingly halfhearted interjections of “Wrong” or “I never said that.” He was not able to land the one-liners that have won him so much attention in past debates, and that certainly had a negative influence on his image as a winner.
Coming out of Monday, it seems clear that Clinton was the winner. She accomplished everything she needed to, and came out of the debate having cast serious doubt on the boisterous, winning persona that Trump’s voter base loves about him. With two more debates left, this debate has to leave the Clinton campaign feeling like they are on the right track.