1st Thoughts: Clinton v. Trump Debate #1

Donald J. Trump and Hillary R. Clinton at the 1st Presidential Debate, Sep 26, 2016. (c) Fox News

It was the Mumble in the Urban Jumble… It was the Fray on the Bay… It was the First Presidential Debate of the 2016 Election season.  The first time Donald J. Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton went mano a mano at Hofstra University in Hempstead,
Here’s my first thoughts.  From my notes which, fair warning, may not be verbatim accurate.  I expect I’ll refine my thinking overnight.

Who won?

Neither candidate achieved what they set out do.  Their common goal was to earn the support of the undecided voters they need to break the stalemate and win the election. Clinton needed to reassure undecided voters she isn’t just a clone of every other presidential candidate they’ve seen in their lifetime.  Trump needed to reassure undecideds he’s not crazy and won’t throw lead their country into nuclear armageddon.

Hillary Clinton sounded quite good – for a politician.  But she needed to sound better than an average politician to win more support.  She didn’t.  She tried to attract more women voters – because they’re woman and, she argued in her closing statement, Trump is a “misogynist.”  We’ll see if woman are swayed by that.

Clinton strode onto the stage in a bright red pantsuit, a traditionally Republican color, that looked sharp on camera.  She appeared confident and in a good mood and greeted Trump centre stage with a handshake and a cordial “How are you Donald?” that was caught on microphone.  She caught the first question, on the economy and her answer was good.

She started off looking and sounding, frankly, quite presidential.  Her first answer began with “Donald, it’s good to be with you,” then spoke directly to the home audience using “I” and “you.” She was confident and … “human” – she’s been criticized (including by me) for appearing too “robotic” and for failing to connect with audiences on a human level.  Tonight, she began by personalizing her response, noting it was her granddaughter’s second birthday and she was concerned about the girl’s ability to get a good job when she grew up.  Well-practiced.  Well-delivered.

It didn’t last.

Donald Trump wore a dark-blue single-breasted suit with a pale blue tie, a color normally associated with the Democratic Party.  He looked serious, even dour as he shook hands with Clinton and took his place at the podium.  He started strong, on message, with a blunt assessment of a bleak-looking economy: “Our jobs are fleeing the country… they’re using our country as a piggybank to rebuild China…”  He kept it high level and focused on the types of concerns that beleaguer middle America.  He was cordial, though stiff, saying he and Clinton agreed on a number of issues, including child care, addressing her as Secretary Clinton – then pausing and asking her directly, “Is that OK? I want you to be very happy.”

He sounded informed.  He sounded on point.  He didn’t sound crazy.

It didn’t last.

The Cut and Thrust

As expected, Clinton was well-rehearsed and spoke often from her notes.  In fact on the national security and defence questions, she relied heavily on them.  In part, probably, because her answers were heavy on policy and included laundry-lists of campaign promises from her platform.  She used the TV opportunity to deliver an infomercial of her campaign platform directly to the home audience.  This would be an excellent idea, if a lack of understanding of her policies was the reason some voters were undecided.  But it’s not.  It’s a lack of trust – and listing off facts and figures, billions of these and millions of those, as she did when outlining her economic plan is not always the best way to connect with voters. In fact, it may be safe to say, it’s rarely the best way.

For his part, Trump kept his cool in the early going.  He kept his comments high level, targeting an average voter, with occasional sprinkles of detail to make himself sound informed without drilling too deep.  He talked about Mexico, for example, having a Value Added Tax and suggested that was a de facto non-tarrif trade barrier for US goods going into that country. When Clinton talked about her job creation plans and the opportunities in green energy, Trump talked about a solar power investment he’d been at recently that was “a disaster.”  The status quo approach was losing jobs, he argued, and said Obama had doubled the national debt – which had taken 230 years to accumulate – in just eight years.

Trump was strongest in the beginning, when he stayed to the message that “typical politicians” like Clinton talked a lot, but did little and had been responsible for creating the “mess” they were in.  It was the theme that connected everything he said that landed well.  Typical politicians had created the debt, cost Americans jobs, mired the US in wars they lost, condemned “African Americans and Hispanics” to a dangerous “hell.”

By mid-debate, though, he was frustrated and impatient – often jumping in on Clinton’s 2-minute responses.  She managed to get under his skin on the tax return issue, and he fixated on it for two long.  The moderator, too, got into a number of arguments, most notably about the Obama birth certificate issue and Trump’s position on the Iraq war.  In fact, Trump was thrown considerably off message on the latter argument and went off on a long, unhelpful tangent. He’d already landed a strong hit on the Iraq war matter pointing out that Obama and Clinton had “botched” the exit from Iraq by creating a vacuum that allowed ISIS to emerge.  There’s truth in that, but it was lost in his rambling defence of his own decades-old position on the Iraq war that followed.

Clinton read verbatim from her notes when addressing the question about race relations and what should be done to improve them in the U.S.  Interesting, since this is an area where we would expect her to hold a natural advantage, given the polls.  But, it’s clearly a sensitive topic even for her and she did not stray from the script.

It would be fun to play poker with Secretary Clinton, because she’s not good at hiding her emotions.  She glowed like the Cheshire Cat whenever Donald Trump said something that would allow her to use one of her half-dozen pre-scripted, well-rehearsed “zinger” lines and you could see them coming for minutes.  The split-screen format that kept both candidates on screen regardless of who was talking, was great for this.  But, still, some of the zingers fell flat.  Others, though, were landed well.

Her best line of the night, the one she was clearly waiting for the opportunity to use, came when Trump said he’d been travelling around the country a lot while she had taken time off.  The moderator gave her time to respond and she rephrased Trump’s attack to suit her zinger, then said “I chose to prepare for the debate. You know what else I prepared for? Being president.”  It was a good line, but no one outside her existing supporters cares about how candidates prepare for a debate.  She was trying to suggest Trump wouldn’t take the presidency seriously, but it didn’t connect well in the delivery.  It may work better tomorrow in the spin rooms.

Trump clearly got under Clinton’s skin a number of times during the debate: early on during the economic discussion after Trump had suggested she’d had 30 years to do something about the economy but mustn’t have thought much about jobs in states like Ohio, Michigan, etc. She said “Actually, I’ve thought about that quite a bit…” and Trump jumped in to say, “Yeah, 30 years.”  She got flustered and look down at her notes to find some safe key messaging to fall back on.  Later, she was visibly angry when…

One of Hillary’s planned attack lines was poorly conceived.  She spent some time attacking Trump on not releasing his tax returns – a subject that clearly annoyed him.  But, then she asked him point blank “What are you hiding?”  That’s a strategic error, I believe.  What Trump could have done there – but didn’t, because he got angry and missed the chance – was to respond with “Well, if you think the only reason to not release something is to hide dirty secrets, I guess that tells us why you’re not releasing the 30,000 emails you deleted from your private server.”  He missed the chance in the debate, but the soundbite is there for an attack ad in the next few weeks to make the same charge.

For his part, Trump fared poorly when it came to the tax returns.  He was clearly angry and flustered and fed Clinton an excuse that will, no doubt, find it’s way tomorrow into her media spin and onto new attack ads.  When she suggested his tax returns may reveal he doesn’t pay much tax, Trump said “That makes me smart” then “My obligation is to do well for myself… my employees… my companies…”  That’s a money line, Clinton’s team will have a hay day with.

Clinton trotted out her well-worn attack line that if Trump loses his temper over Twitter, he shouldn’t have the nuclear codes – after saying the threat of nuclear attack is the number one threat facing the US.  This allowed Trump to effectively agree with her, saying “Nuclear is the biggest threat… not global warming…” then talk about the generals who agree with him.

The Top Line

  • Call it a draw. Neither likely gained or lost supporters.
  • Hillary:
    • Strong on policy, scripted remarks, connected with the audience better than before.
    • Uncomfortable on defence and, surprisingly, the race relations issue.
    • Silly to attack Trump’s honesty as it’s her biggest weakness as well.
    • Smarter to stay on positive tone and talk about how she’ll be different from Obama.
  • Trump:
    • Strong on Economy, Defence and Domestic Security.
    • Surprisingly reasonable on race issues (!?!)
    • Allowed himself to get flustered and look impatient.
    • Silly to get bogged into length defences of Iraq position, tax returns, etc.  Better to address with a prepared line and pivot onto a key message.
    • Smart to stay on “traditional politicians haven’t done anything for you” – economy, jobs, crime, wars, everything
  • Summary:  Both Trump and Clinton will have to do much, much better, if they want to move undecided voters into their camps.

The Format & Moderator

The format was what it was – no better or worse than any other debate.  But the Split-screen image was brilliant.  Both candidates were visible 100% of the time.  Every tic, wince, eye roll, smug smile, angry glare was visible.

The moderator tried to hold to time and failed.  Tried to wrangle the subject matter and failed.  Tried to fact-check and pushback on real or perceived inaccuracies, sensitive no doubt to extensive pre-debate criticism from media hacks, and failed.

It was pointless for the moderator to get into an argument with Trump.  It added nothing to the debate or the quality of the information it provided undecided voters.