ST. LOUIS — Donald Trump had a better night than expected. Hillary Clinton missed some opportunities to defend her record and attack her opponent. The second presidential debate on Sunday night was marked by contradictions: ugly personal attacks and policy-heavy segments, plenty of lies and moments of actual candor (at the very end.)
All in all, Trump likely regained some ground after one of the worst three-day periods in modern campaign history. Dozens of Republican elected officials withdrew their support for Trump over the weekend after a video was released on Friday in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. And Clinton failed to deliver the knockout punch her supporters had hoped for.
The question is: was Trump’s performance at Washington University in St. Louis enough to turn his campaign around? It was an improvement from the first debate—but that’s not saying much. For Trump to beat Clinton in November, he’ll need to expand his base of support, and there is little reason to believe that he accomplished that in the second debate. While both campaigns wait for new polls to come out, here are some early takeaways from St. Louis.
Trump improved. At a familiar point
For the Republican nominee, think of this as the opposite twin of the first debate. In face-off number one, Donald Trump cruised through the first 15-20 minutes but then, even Republicans agree, stumbled for the rest of the night in a storm of seeming agitation. But in round two, in St. Louis, Trump markedly improved. And that improvement started around the 20-minute mark.
After Clinton let loose with her attack on Trump as unfit (pivoting off that infamous video), the Republican candidate replied, “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words. And those words, I’ve been hearing them for many years.” It was Trump in his own skin, doing something new in the debates: turning a Clinton attack on him into a gut-punch against her as a meaningless longtime politician.
Trump was the less-defensive Trump. The on-offense, one-liner Trump. Throughout the night he showed more control than in the first debate. And more discipline. About 53 minutes in, a clearly frustrated Trump put his request for more time this way to moderator Martha Raddatz. “Can I just respond to this, please?” This is not to say he was flawless. He was still agitated at times, defensive at others and occasionally put together curious phrases. But he was improved.
Clinton was better at stagecraft
While Trump naturally knows how to work his crowds, Clinton knows the swing-voter town hall format incredibly well. From her appropriately serious and focused listening expressions as Trump spoke, to her direct walk toward and reach out to the voters asking questions, the Democratic nominee understood both the room and the cameras around the room.
And she used movement to send a message. Clinton notably did not shake her opponent’s hand. (As a noted germaphobe, Trump may have been grateful.) She pointedly crossed in front of Trump in close range on multiple occasions. Consider Clinton’s stagecraft a kind of silent counter-tactic to Trump’s audible interruptions in the first debate.
Sex on the (political) brain
Trump “went there” on Sunday night. Or did he? Over the weekend, Trump made clear his plan to bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities at the second debate—even though many people in his own party thought the strategy would backfire. Less than two hours before the debate got underway, Trump held a surprise press conference with several women who have claimed that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted them in the past. That seemed to suggest that Trump would hold nothing back when he came face-to-face with Hillary.
Once the debate started, Trump wasted little time in attacking Bill Clinton. “There’s never been anybody in the history of politics of this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” Trump said, as the former president looked on, stone-faced, from the Clinton family box in the audience. Trump added that Hillary Clinton had “attacked those same women, and attacked them viciously.” It was an extraordinary and unprecedented moment in U.S. politics: a presidential nominee, recently caught on tape making vulgar comments about women, accusing a former president of abusing women.
But Trump didn’t go further, as he hinted he might, to launch a detailed attack on the Clinton’s marital history. Instead, he spent a significant portion of the first 30 minutes of the debate defending the comments he made in the video that was published by the Washington Post on Friday. And he didn’t look good. When Anderson Cooper, one of the moderators, asked Trump point-blank if he understood that the actions he described in the 2005 video — kissing and groping women without their consent — amounted to sexual assault, Trump disagreed—and doubled-down on his claim that the talk was just “locker room banter.”
“I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump added. He can continue repeating those words, but just because he says them, it doesn’t make it true. As Clinton said, “I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is.” Trump needs to improve his support with women. If he doesn’t, he won’t win the election. He failed to do that in this debate.
Clinton’s missed opportunities
There was plenty of material to work with. A new report, published after the first presidential debate, that showed Trump took a $916 million tax loss in 1995, and potentially didn’t pay his federal incomes taxes for the next 18 years. A video of Trump making vulgar comments about women. A weekend in which dozens of Republican leaders — from Sen. John McCain on down — abandoned their party’s nominee.
And yet despite having all this at her fingertips, Clinton took a surprisingly conservative approach to the debate. Clinton did not spend much time on Trump’s tax returns, unlike in the first debate, when she called on Trump to release his returns and made a powerful argument about all the reasons why he might be hiding details about his real business record. She criticized Trump’s comments in the “Access Hollywood” video, but didn’t go after him with the same intensity she displayed in the closing moments of the first debate, when she skewered Trump for demeaning a former Miss Universe. At the same time, Clinton made only passing mention of the fact that Trump was being deserted by his party’s elected leaders.
And Clinton let several of Trump’s attacks against her go largely unanswered. She apologized, once again, for her decision to use a private email server. But Trump criticized her repeatedly for deleting thousands of emails, and Clinton didn’t have a particularly fresh or effective response. She also struggled to defend her comment, made in a paid speech to Wall Street executives, that politicians need to have a public and private position on issues. The comment appeared in a trove of leaked documents released on Friday.
At the debate, Clinton said the comment was a reference to Abraham Lincoln, and his ability to wheel-and-deal to get things done. But the analogy fell flat—and Trump was ready with a strong rebuttal. “She lied, and now she’s blaming it on the late, great Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said. The exchange underscored the stakes at the debate. Clinton had a chance to deliver a knockout blow and didn’t.
We have a problem. With civility and boundaries
Out of 321 million people, the two Americans who made it to the presidential debate stage Sunday night made it clear that they will do and say nearly anything to win this race. The 2016 battle between two unpopular figures continues too often be a race to the bottom.
That is not entirely new. The U.S. has witnessed vicious, brutally personal presidential elections since George Washington retired. But, there is something different this time around. A flavor of reality television mixed with anger. An attention-deficit skimming of important topics in favor of landing punches and earning style points. Clinton and Trump did discuss significant policy in St. Louis. But that did not seem to be the central contrast each was trying to make. They aimed more at persona than ability. More at dramatic moments than drilling down on real-world problems.
An example: the swirling words over sexual remarks and alleged acts. As the two campaigns alternated pointing fingers and throwing elbows, neither hit the broader issue: How powerful men treat less powerful women. That might be a difficult discussion, but one worth having. Instead, this debate showed that this cycle’s lack of civility and boundaries are keeping important discussions out of reach. And likely encouraging voters to keep shaking their heads.