To say that the debate was buzzworthy would be putting it lightly. For weeks before Monday night’s presidential debate, various outlets had been reporting almost obsessively about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s pre-debate preparation rituals. NPR reported Clinton’s strategy as “watching video of Trump’s performance in the primary debates and reviewing briefing books of his proposed policies and his personality traits.” Meanwhile CNN assessed that “unlike Clinton, [Trump] doesn’t spend hours delving into briefing books. He prefers to discuss the issues out loud with his advisers.” So it appeared that even going into the debate, the media had it pegged as a question of brains v. brawn and policies v. performance. And true to their scrutinized practice habits, the candidates delivered a spectacle that resembled that very dichotomy, to a tee.
It appeared all that time spent pouring over the books worked very much to Clinton’s favor, whereas Trump’s casual chats over burgers & coke presented him as flustered, flummoxed and at many points simply grasping for words. From the start, Clinton kept composed as she answered each question thoroughly, whereas Trump’s thinly resourced points were supplicated by attacks lobbed at Clinton, moderator Lester Holt and just about everybody else we could have predicted Trump to be upset with. One particularly cringe-worthy but also praise-worthy moment (negative for Trump, laudable for NBC News who needed a win after Lauer’s widely mocked soft-on-Trump performance) was when Holt asked Trump about his previous stance on the Iraq war. In the current election, Trump has long held that he never supported the U.S. deployment in Iraq, despite the fact that he had been quoted as in support as early as 2002. When Trump denied he had ever supported the war effort, Holt continued to press him, citing on-the-record statements as proof, which only caused Trump to deny it even more vehemently. If Trump had perhaps taken that moment to square the issue away once and for all by admitting he had indeed voiced support, but after realizing the immense cost decided to reverse that support, he probably could have saved the debate and his image going into the election. But he didn’t, and that’s why almost every single media outlet called Clinton the definitive winner of the debate for her excellent performance and command of the debate stage, painted against Trump’s contorted and unfounded rhetoric.
My advice to Donald Trump? Nobody passes a test without studying, and the same goes for presidential debates. And as for Clinton? Don’t get comfortable, because even at just over four weeks out, most polls still have the race in a virtual dead heat. This is going to be an election for the history books.