Commentary: What to Make of the First Presidential Debate

Oct 4, 2016

Can you endure one more commentary about last week’s presidential debate? If not, tune to sister station KMUC for some fine classical music.

 

Still listening?

 

 


 

What did not happen at the debate is important. Neither candidate made one of those bonehead mistakes that they would be talking about fifty years from now, although Trump’s boast about not paying taxes may eventually qualify. Neither candidate landed one of those staggering blows that are part of presidential debate legend.

 

Both candidates were pretty much as advertised. Clinton was, uh, prepared and pretty much unflappable. Trump was blustery and aggressive – Alpha Dog to the hilt. Trump said many outrageous things. Clinton said many boring things.

 

Were the debate being judged by traditional debate metrics, Clinton won. But millions of viewers neither knew nor cared about traditional debate rules. To them this event was visceral and tribal.

 

I watched with a group of about fifty Columbia College students. Before the debate there was a show-of-hands straw poll: Five for Clinton, 14 for Trump, 24 undecided or for someone else or not for either Trump or Clinton. After the debate there were six for Clinton, 12 for Trump and 14 other. Many had left. Most of the audience were traditional age college students and therefore Millenials, so the lack of enthusiasm for either Clinton or Trump was not unexpected. I wondered how many were registered to vote but wouldn’t bother come November 8.

 

One of the strangest aspects of this election is this: There are several Republicans, probably including their vice presidential nominee, but maybe not including Donald Trump, who could beat Clinton. And there are several Democrats, probably including their vice presidential nominee, but maybe not Hillary Clinton, who could beat Trump.

 

This is Clinton’s election to lose. Every time Trump opens his mouth and his Twitter account, he loses more votes, especially among women. But those are not necessarily votes that Clinton picks up.

The second debate on October 9, and the third, if there is one, on October 19 may not be helpful. Most people have made up their minds about the candidates and now have to decide whether to vote. I won’t be surprised if turnout is below the last two presidential elections. If it is, it will be a problem for Clinton.

 

The late historian Stephen Ambrose wrote many wonderful books. He entitled his book about the building of the transcontinental railroad Nothing Like It in the World. That title also fits the 2016 election campaign.