Despite the frenzied cable news coverage ahead of this year’s first presidential debate, America should bear in mind a crucial part about the race to the White House: Presidential debates are important events, but they are not seismic events. Most political experts agree that in the history of televised debates between the Democratic and Republican candidates, no debate has ever significantly changed the basic dynamics of a presidential election, and last night’s face-off between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton could be no different.
Other than looking at ratings, there are no real numbers that help assess the debate immediately after the fact. Rather, the conventional question is always who “won” or “lost” by attempting to determine whether candidates have exceeded or fallen short of expectations. That’s exactly why campaigns always discover a sudden modesty about their candidates’ abilities by attempting to “low-ball” expectations prior to the debate: They can claim afterward that a candidate vastly exceeded expectations, and therefore won.
Most Americans are like passengers on an airplane when it comes to politics. They just want to know whether a given presidential candidate will try to take the country where they want it to go, and whether a candidate will be able to “fly” the government so that it doesn’t crash land. They want a president who is calm under intense pressure and knowledgeable enough to understand policy and crises, and to assess alternatives posed by advisors.
Clinton portrayed herself as the candidate better suited to do just that last night, ultimately winning the debate, but due more to Trump’s under-performance than to her over-performance. Ignore what the spinners claimed; in video after the debate was over, Trump did not look happy, and Clinton did.
Trump represents the segment of the population that is fed up with politics and politicians as usual. In particular, he expresses the pain of those in the manufacturing industry who have lost their jobs. His message is that the greatest threats to the American dream are foreign countries and domestic politicians. During the debate, he returned frequently to the tone of his July convention speech, telling voters to “be afraid, be very afraid,” when he painted a picture of a dystopian America, thereby doubling down on his Republican-primary support base rather than seeking to expand it.
Early in the debate, Trump was able to articulate these concerns, but by minute 26, the food fight started. He typically couldn’t take criticism without lashing back, and he interrupted Clinton continuously, even after chastising her for the one or two times she interrupted him. The visuals of Trump on the split screen suggested that he is a man quick to anger, and not used to having to sit and listen to others.
If Trump came across as emotional and volatile—hot—Clinton came across as calm and controlled—cool. She appeared knowledgeable and tough, not wilting next to him. He seemed rattled and on defense most of the evening, while she seemed to be on offense. That the audience laughed when he said, “I also have a much better temperament than she does,” worked to his detriment.
Clinton went after what Trump takes as his strength—his business acumen—and, by criticizing him for frequently refusing to pay his subcontractors over the years, she attempted to undermine his support among white, working-class voters who would have suffered from that.
So, Clinton won, but the question is, how much does that matter? Though her line, “Donald, I know you live in your own reality,” was witty and pointed to questions about his veracity, there was no “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” moment.
The best result for her is that the debate changed the media narrative of the past couple of weeks about her shrinking margin in the polls. It re-enthused her supporters, even if it didn’t help her win over millennials in any obvious way.
On the other hand, as a caution rather than a prediction, we do well to recall that, by general agreement, Walter Mondale, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney won round one in, respectively, 1984, 2004, and 2012, and yet President Reagan, President Bush, and President Obama all won re-election. Whichever candidate the fundamentals favor in 2016, this debate did not change them in any seismic way.
Dennis J. Goldford is a professor and chair of the department of political science at Drake University.