I’m calling this a win for Clinton.
Firstly, though, a caveat. This debate, like this entire campaign, doesn’t behave like anything we’ve ever seen. Trump could put in a train wreck performance that would kill any other candidate (and in many respects, he did), and not shift poll numbers at all. The usual criteria, in other words, don’t really apply.
So what does matter here? How can we discern a winner in this brave new world? A good place to start might be by comparing candidates’ performances against their own campaigns’ hopes. On this measure, it’s pretty clear that Clinton stuck to her game plan and Trump didn’t. Clinton remained measured and calm for pretty much the whole 90 minutes. She didn’t look flustered and, crucially, she didn’t roll her eyes at Trump. Her attempts to fact check were firm but free of invective. Her answers weren’t always punchy, and she might still have sounded at times like the ‘wonk’ the media has accused her of being, but that’s not necessarily contrary to the image she’s going for.
Contrast Trump. The attempts by his campaign to reposition him as more measured, composed and presidential than his primary season self have been very apparent. He has stuck to the teleprompter script at recent campaign events, and presented as reserved and moderate. In the first stages of the debate, that was exactly what we saw. It seemed clear that the Trump game plan was to appear more reasoned than anyone credited him for, to win over hitherto-undecided voters.
That lasted about five minutes. From the moment Trump’s personal background came under fire, and then for the remainder of the event, the raging bull Trump was plainly on show. He lost his cool on several occasions and was at times incoherent.
Again, that won’t mean much to his supporters. They might well have liked seeing him shout over Hillary Clinton, and jeer ‘WRONG’ every time the moderator read out one of his past quotes. But what this might change is the media narrative for the next few days.
In the last couple of weeks, the media narrative has suggested momentum for Trump. He has closed in on the polls, and is being spoken about as exceeding expectations. Clinton, in contrast, has been branded as flailing. Comments about ‘deplorables’ made her seem out of touch and on the defensive, and many expected she’d buckle on stage with Trump.
Even if pundits call today a draw, it’s pretty clear that that narrative will change. Trump spent almost the entire debate on the defensive, for the first time in weeks. Almost half the debate was spent discussing his birtherism, his tax history, his business past, his comments on race and on women and his past views on Iraq and Libya. And what of the famous emails? Clinton spent no more than two minutes on the subject, and dealt with it swiftly and firmly.
The Trump campaign’s spin minutes after the debate said it all. They claimed Trump had managed to ‘get his simple message across to the American people’. In other words, not an attempt to claim victory, but an attempt to defend the candidate’s performance. Trump will be the headline coming out of this debate, not Clinton.
For Clinton, that won’t be a bad thing. The conversation had long ago shifted away from a discussion about Trump’s fitness for the role, as pundits claiming he was unqualified started to sound stale. The media has focused more recent attention on Clinton’s flaws. That should change. For the next week or two, at least, the focus in the US should return to the question the rest of the world hasn’t stopped asking: is Trump really fit to be president? The Clinton campaign should see that as a win.