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Six takeaways from the first presidential debate

BY and   September 27, 2016 at 1:09 AM EST
Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Donald Trump as Moderator Lester Holt looks on during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26.  Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Donald Trump as Moderator Lester Holt looks on during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nineteen months of campaigning and years of presidential ambitions from both candidates just compressed themselves into a 94-minute battle of words. But as fact-checkers’ fingers uncurl, what are the longer-term takeaways from the historic debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Here are six.

Clinton did get under Trump’s skin.

His press releases, and nearly all around him strictly refer to the Republican nominee as “Mr. Trump.” But 29 different times, Clinton called her opponent simply “Donald”. (He referred to her as “secretary”.) At the same time, she followed through on another strategy – Clinton rarely interrupted Trump. She instead let him do the interrupting. And he did, starting 13 minutes into the debate. (Immediately after her fourth “Donald” by the way.) The Trump interruptions increased from there.

Another factor worked in Clinton’s favor as well: the very limited audience reaction. In the primary debates, audiences often cheered and applauded Trump’s jabs and interjections. But in the silent Hofstra Arena, every Trump interruption echoed.

But Clinton still has trouble self-editing

The Democratic nominee is known for her depth on policy issues. But on occasion, Clinton seemed to veer away from giving a clear, substantive message to voters and into a Washington-esque academic schooling. An example: She made a point of naming ISIS leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and the Syrian town of Raqqa, possibly to differentiate herself from Trump. But Clinton does not need to prove her foreign policy bona fides. This is not to say high-level knowledge has no place in a debate. But it is to say that Clinton sometimes uses this knowledge in a way that can come off as intellectually smug. And that risks undermining her work to appear human and genuine.

After solid start, Trump turned erratic and defensive

Trump looked poised when he walked on stage, and maintained his cool in the opening moments of the debate. Then, about 15 minutes in, Clinton noted that Trump once said he “rooted” for the housing crisis so that he could make money in the real estate market, and Trump broke in to say, “that’s called business.” (That was the initial interruption we mentioned above.) After that exchange, Trump’s demeanor changed, and he never fully recovered.

Trump was erratic and defensive for the rest of the debate, in particular when it came to his taxes and business record, though he managed to score some points by painting Clinton as a career politician. Trump gave a series of scattered responses to questions about his tax returns, and a rambling answer to a question about race and policing that ended with him promoting a club he built in Palm Beach, Florida, which is roughly 95 percent white.

After the debate, Trump’s surrogates said he came off as strong and decisive. RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters that Trump had successfully gone “toe-to-toe” with Clinton. But Clinton’s campaign aides painted a different picture. “I think Donald Trump had an epic meltdown,” said Brian Fallon, Clinton’s press secretary. Another top Clinton advisor told the PBS NewsHour the campaign had prepared for a more disciplined Trump.

There was some actual substance

If you take a step back from the blow-by-blow, you can see some mental bright spots in a few pockets of important substance. Especially on class and race. “He really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be,” Clinton said early in the night. She instead argued for raising taxes on the rich and using the money to benefit other Americans. Trump responded later that freeing capital at the top would boost employment everywhere. “The wealthy are going create tremendous jobs,” he said. “They’re going to expand their companies. They’re going to do a tremendous job.”

Another important section of substance: How the candidates would confront unrest between communities of color and police. Clinton called for increased trust and particularly railed against gun violence. Trump stressed his call for “law and order,” pointed to gangs and defended “stop-and-frisk” as a policy that took guns away from “bad people.”

The two candidates hit squarely on some key divides in American life today.

Lester Holt had a big night

Holt, the debate moderator, deserves credit for how the night went. Trying to moderate a debate between Trump and Clinton wasn’t going to be easy; the two have been attacking each other for months, and Trump ran roughshod over many of the GOP primary debate moderators. There was plenty of tension — and interrupting, mostly from Trump — on Monday night. And several of the back-and-forths appeared to go well past their allotted time.

But on balance, Holt was able to control the flow of the debate, and keep the candidates (more or less) focused on the questions at hand. He also drilled down on several issues, such as the birther controversy, which denied Trump an easy out. Holt also performed one notable real-time fact check, when he told Trump that the record showed he supported the Iraq War. That could prove controversial, but because the rest of the debate went relatively smoothly, Holt will likely come away from the night with mostly positive, or at least neutral, reviews.

Clinton outperformed Trump, but does it matter?

Overall, Clinton had a better debate night than Trump. It was evident as soon as the debate ended, when Clinton stayed on stage to shake hands with supporters, and Trump made a quick exit looking visibly angry. Clinton came across as more knowledgeable on foreign and domestic policy, and forced Trump to spend important portions of the night defending his business record.

The question is: will it matter? Debates typically only make a one or two-point difference in the polls. The candidates entered the debate in a near tie, with Clinton up a few points in some national polls and ahead in a few key battleground states. The polls that come out in the next week or so will indicate how much impact the debate had on voters. But most people’s opinions of Clinton and Trump are already cooked, meaning that they won’t change much before Election Day. If anything, the debate reinforced both candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. So it could be a wash, as far as polls go. The race was close beforehand, and will be close when Trump and Clinton hit the campaign trail this week.

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