The first 2016 Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was held on Monday, September 26th at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. The debate, organized by the commission on presidential debate, a non-partisan non-profit body, had the sports fraternity worried as the Monday night football viewership took a nosedive as Americans flipped channels to watch it. An estimated 81 million viewers were glued to their television sets making it the most watched debate ever. The debate had also set the social media on fire. With over ten million tweets, it was the most tweeted debate ever. America and many elsewhere in the world were transfixed watching Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spar at their first debate.
The cable TV networks had spent the entire week speculating and ratcheting up the excitement about the debate. They discussed at length on how the candidates should prepare, what questions to expect and what to wear and so on. This drew sharp comments from some politicians. The indefatigable Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont and failed Democratic candidate, blasted the media and its coverage leading to the debate. He wanted the media to focus on the views of the candidates on burning issues – economy, jobs, living wage, healthcare, college tuition etc. rather than their personal styles and attires.
At the debate, the candidates were on their Sunday best – all dressed up and at their behavioral best and displaying dignified courtesies to each other. Many were indeed impressed to see a pleasant side of Trump.
The moderator - Lester Holt of NBC News – drew attention for different reasons. Holt, as a moderator, was at best, tepid. There was a robot-like quality about him– devoid of enthusiasm and passion in his questions and interventions. Like a strict disciplinarian, he admonished the audience for cheering and clapping but said nothing when they cheered Clinton.
Holt had six follow up questions for Trump, but none for Clinton. He tried to pin him down on the birther issue, but conveniently forgot to ask Clinton about propriety of using private email server or hacking of DNC emails that exposed racism. Many Trump supporters tweeted later that the moderator deftly steered the debate away from issues, reinforcing an anti-Trump bias. It should be pointed out that the Trump campaign had raised doubts about his neutrality even before the debate.
Back at the debate, Trump had a lot of surprises up his sleeve. His responses were measured and controlled. Judging by the post-debate discussions, the pundits were indeed disappointed that they did not see the real maverick Trump. He seemed to be in full control in early part of the debate when the debate was on trade and Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) in particular. Clearly Clinton was cornered for calling it the “gold standard” and later opposing it. However, she took control in the later half by attacking Trump on his comments on women.
The pre debate polls have given no easy pointer as to who the new President would be. Trump led in Colorado, Nevada and Florida – all key states. He has further consolidated his position in Ohio, a state which Hillary has not visited for a long time. While Trump leads in rural Maine, Clinton holds the rest of Maine. This even fight also played out in many other states. Clinton is way ahead in California, Oregon, and Washington where the lead is substantial. But the respective leads in individual states did not help either of them in the national tally where they are locked even.
The debate itself may not provide any significant bounce for either candidate. While the pundits have had a field day dissecting the performance, they too may not be able to sway the voter’s opinion one way or the other in this rather difficult race. Media analysts who have favored Clinton all along thought that her performance was the best and that she won the debate. But Republican supporters on the other hand were convinced Trump’s performance in the first half cornered Clinton. They were all in admiration for the restraint and statesman-like conduct of Trump. Even many Clinton admirers seem to be in agreement.
The next debate may see the return of the true Trump.
But did Clinton win the debate? Clinton’s supporters think she won. But the problem is even if she had won the debate, this may not win her new supporters who will vote for her. The reason is her problems – email scandal, Clinton Foundation, hacked DNC email and other scandals - have weighed her down. Further her personal health issues will continue to dog her in the coming days. Most important, there is no indication that her debate performance has induced a change of heart in Sanders supporters who remain a considerable voting bloc.
Did Trump win the debate then? Most cable television networks don’t seem to think so. But some have pointed out that the Trump we saw at the debate was someone who was clearly exercising self-restraint and reluctant to go after Clinton. Americans have admired this change in him. But the next debate promises to be a no holds barred debate where Trump’s plain speak and absence of political correctness will be evident. This will again play to his supporters and may even influence the fence sitters who do not want to support Clinton.
The debate outcome by itself is a non-issue. Recall how Obama did not do well against Mitt Romney in the debate, but bounced back quickly and the rest is history. It would be political naiveté to rule out Trump at this stage. In fact, the core issues that he stands for – immigration, unemployment and security - continue to resonate very well with most Americans and will be a huge positive for him. Clinton on the other hand continues to be perceived as ‘not trustworthy’ and her truck load of troubles will continue to haunt her.
The big question however is how will the election go. Given that the pre-debate polls have shown that both are almost evenly placed - except that Trump has caught up with Clinton - the answer may be with undecided voters. Supporters of Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein and Johnson may hold the key and may tip the balance in favor of Trump. However, even at this late stage - with just forty days to go for the big day - it may be too early expect this as the contestants have more wooing to do. Clinton and Trump may have, at best, tied at the first debate. But the real winners were the political pundits and armchair experts on cable networks who had a hell of a day and laughed their way to the banks. The 2016 US Presidential election promises to be another close election.