Who’s in Charge Here: Nobody ‘won’ last night’s debate (…OK, Hillary did)

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — One of the worst parts of “horse race” coverage of politics is that political debates get treated like sporting events. There’s play-by-play, replays, and then a demand to know afterward which candidate “won” – as if there was a numerical score that we can highlight to show the victor.

Still, candidates can have better or worse nights. Barack Obama famously had a bad night in his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012, and polls reflected that bad performance shortly thereafter. If “winning” a debate can be understood as shorthand for which candidate accomplished the most and avoided the worst, then Hillary Clinton “won” the night. By a mile.

That’s not to say that Trump accomplished nothing. Both candidates can point to moments where they effectively communicated their message or made their opponent look bad. But Clinton probably was facing higher stakes last night, and she managed to do more of what she wanted by the end of the night.

How did she do it? In three ways:

  1. Each candidate was certainly aggressive in attacking their opponent. Trump’s portrayal of Clinton as a corrupt DC insider was unsurprising. But Clinton also showed she could mix it up by painting the Donald as an out-of-touch billionaire who cheats the little guy. (Although her weak attempts to make “trumped-up trickle down economics” a thing was inept.) Both campaigns would probably count the evening a success in this regard, and both are probably speaking largely to their bases in doing so. Still, Clinton at least showed that she could hit Trump just as hard as he hit her.
  1. More importantly, Clinton did a better job of moving the argument against her opponent forward into new territory. Trump stumbled badly in defending himself against his record on birtherism and supporting the Iraq War, but it was Clinton’s attack on the release of his tax returns that probably did the most damage to his candidacy. Many in the media have complained about Trump’s refusal to release the information, but last night Clinton made the case, better than anyone else, why it actually matters. Questions about taxes and what “he’s trying to hide,” as Clinton suggested, should persist over the next few weeks, and that’s not good for Trump.
  1. Finally, the two candidates continued the themes they articulated in their respective conventions. Clinton used forward-looking, hopeful language, repeatedly telling viewers that she wanted to “invest in YOU.” Meanwhile, Trump continued to paint a picture of a near-apocalyptic present in which immigrant gangs roamed the streets and other countries were “stealing our jobs.” Both effectively communicated these narratives, but here’s the thing: Trump’s story turns off voters. If America reacts to the debates in the same way they reacted to the conventions, then Hillary should expect a nice bump in the polls over the next few days as the effects of the debate begin to be measured.

One of the questions facing Trump is the possibility that his support might have a hard ceiling; he’s never polled more than 40-45% of the vote, and it may be hard for him to break out beyond his loyal cadre of followers. Nothing happened last night to change that dynamic. Other candidates might view this political landscape and decide that a change in strategy is necessary, but Trump does not seem like that kind of candidate. Trump is who he is, and that’s likely good news for Hillary Clinton going forward.

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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