All of the swirling and competing dynamics of 2016 were there. The candidates’ visceral frustration with each other. The public’s hope for more serious discussion. The economy and immigration. Allegations of sexual misconduct and campaign corruption. It was neither the best of debates, nor the worst of debates. But it may have been the most fascinating of this campaign. Here are six takeaways from the final presidential face-to-face.
It is the headline of the debate. Donald Trump is not ready to say he will accept the results of this election. He’ll let us know November 9. Our takeaways? Two thoughts. First, Trump realizes he may lose and is still toying with risky questions about whether the election is fair. Second — and don’t discount this dynamic — this is a showman who cannot resist a way to keep people tuned in.
The adults were in the room
Ahead of the debate, moderator Chris Wallace announced he would tackle six topics: debt and entitlements, immigration, economy, Supreme Court, foreign hot spots and fitness to be president.
Odds seemed long that he would get to them all. But Wallace did in fact cover every serious issue he listed and added a seventh bonus section — on why the candidates should each be president. Whether it was Wallace’s command and insistence upon a more orderly debate or whether it was a recognition by both campaigns that this was their last moment to look presidential, the debate was by far the most adult yet.
The candidates did not just flick at policy, they rolled in deep discussions of differences on the second amendment, abortion, Russia, the economy and the Arab world. There were of course moments of heated drama. But there was also a much better look than we’d seen before at what the candidates would mean for the direction of the country.
Trump may have a new issue with women
The Republican nominee’s views on abortion, which polls show to be one of the largest gender-gap issues, have not gotten much attention in the general election cycle. Until now.
In this debate, Trump made it clear he expects his choices for the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, the court decision legalizing abortion. Such a strong anti-abortion sentiment could be a boost among abortion rights opponents, a key segment of the Republican base. But it may hurt him overall among women. This is because of a particular nuance in the abortion debate. While the American public is split over whether they identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, most voters are in the middle on the issue – supporting legal abortions, but with restrictions. But overturning Roe v. Wade? A whopping 64 percent of women and 63 percent of men oppose that idea.
Those numbers indicate a problem with both genders. But in Trump’s case it may affect him more with women — because that is the group that is less certain about him. And it’s the one he needs more.
Clinton let loose
Clinton said that Trump “choked” when he met face to face with Mexico’s president earlier this year. She said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was backing Trump in the race “because he’d rather have a puppet as president.” At another point in the debate, Clinton lambasted the Trump Foundation for using a donor’s money to buy a six-foot portrait of Trump, adding, “Who does that?”
Time and again on Wednesday night, Clinton lambasted her Republican rival without holding anything back. The strategy was on clear display in the middle of the debate, when she compared her experienced over the past 30 years to Trump’s. As she went down the list, Clinton noted that while she was in the Situation Room during the attack that killed Osama Bin Laden, Trump was hosting “Celebrity Apprentice.” “I’m happy to compare my 30 years of experience,” she said, and it showed.
It marked a departure from the first two debates, where Clinton seemed to be trying to mask her contempt for her opponent. That pretense disappeared in Las Vegas. Whether she planned to or not, Clinton really let loose. As a result, she likely didn’t win over any core Trump supporters. But it might have rallied her base, or at least the segment of Democrats who urged Clinton to attack Trump more aggressively at the debates.
Trump body language
We tried something new this debate — watching different views of the face-off on separate televisions. On one desk was a split screen with both candidates. But on another we saw just Trump’s camera, whether he was speaking or not.
The Republican candidate was much more disciplined with his words in this debate, even with his decibel level for the word “wrong”. (It was no longer “Wrong!”) But we noticed, especially while Clinton spoke, that Trump’s body language indicated a growing agitation. He shook his head. He angrily adjusted his mic. By the time the debate was nearing 60 minutes, the body language was spilling over into his words. “Give me a break,” Trump retorted as Clinton brought up accusations that he berated a former Miss Universe for her weight.
The takeaway: Trump was more in command, more disciplined generally in what he said. But his body language indicated he still wanted to throw verbal punches.
So, what next?
Donald Trump entered the debate trailing Clinton in national polls and most battleground states. Trump needed a big win, and he didn’t get it. A CNN/ORC instant poll showed that 52 percent of viewers thought Clinton won the debate, compared to 39 percent who thought Trump was the winner. It’ll take a few more days for the full impact of the debate to register in polls. But one thing seems clear: Trump did not do enough to significantly alter the course of the race.
That’s because Trump did nothing in the debate to try and expand his base. He said plenty of things that will energize his most ardent voters— but their support only gets him to around 40 or so percent of the vote. Without broadening his appeal to moderates, Trump won’t be able to win the White House.
It will be interesting to see what Clinton does in the next 19 days. Will she continue hammering Trump with the no-holds-barred vigor she employed on Wednesday night? Or will she pivot and try to deliver a more optimistic message as the campaign winds down? To a certain extent, it may not even matter. Most voters have made up their minds, and early voting is underway in several states. There’s time for a late October surprise, but that time is quickly running out. In Las Vegas, the underlying dynamic of the race didn’t change. For Clinton, that constitutes a big win.