By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a real clash that laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of both candidates, but early instant polls and focus groups indicate that Hillary Clinton is the clear winner. Overall well-prepared, and following through on a plan, Clinton got the better of Trump in most exchanges, while Trump allowed himself to be baited on personal questions, and at times rambled through answers with little evident structure other than the broad objective of attacking Hillary Clinton.
Much time will be spent parsing each of the individual on-stage moments. In the coming days we will see endless analysis of body language, sniffles, zingers, attacks, and even whether watching the split screen version changed how the audience felt versus the non-split screen version. But what matters in the end is not actually who won the debate. Instead, what matters is how each candidate advanced or harmed his/her chance of winning on November 8th.
Three key voter groups that we identified as warranting a closer look in terms of how the candidates would try to win them over are non-college educated white voters, young voters under the age of 35, and suburban women. In the coming days we will likely see both overall shifts in the poll numbers, which will be both driven and dampened by changes in these groups, as well as by undecided voters who begin to make up their mind.
Trump is very strong already with non-college educated white voters in the rust belt swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where a recent CNN poll put Trump at 53% with this demographic. To counteract Clinton’s strength with black and Hispanic voters, as well as college educated voters, Trump needs to hold his ground among this voting group, many of whom feel that their way of life is under threat.
This explains why Trump’s strongest moments came when discussing trade deals and the job losses they have meant for many communities in the rust belt state, while also attacking Hillary Clinton’s position on the Trans Pacific Partnership and why she differs from President Barack Obama’s position on it.
Clinton in turn responded by attacking Trump’s business career and portraying him as someone who takes advantage of people who are less fortunate, a tactic that worked well for Barack Obama against Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump’s unwillingness to release his tax returns also enabled her to make a series of claims about what they might show, including that he pays no taxes at all, which he is unable to counter without releasing his tax returns.
Along with immigration and social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, strong appeals to young voters under the age of 35 were noticeably absent from the debate stage. Clinton needs to consolidate liberal young voters behind her, but many have been hesitant to do so after overwhelmingly supporting her primary opponent Bernie Sanders. The advantage Clinton has is that young liberal voters are not supporting Donald Trump either. Instead around 17% say that they will support third party candidates.
Rather than going after young voters directly with policy proposals, Clinton instead chose to frame the race as a necessary choice between the two candidates. She did this by attacking Trump for his birther campaign against President Barack Obama, emphasizing her stance on race-relations and police shootings in the country – which many young liberal voters say they care deeply about – as well as by simply being the only candidate on stage with Donald Trump.
Finally, the most powerful moments of the debate for Clinton were regarding gender which will help her among suburban women voters who have historically tended to vote Republican but are worried about Trump’s temperament and character.
Clinton pushed back strongly against Trump’s suggestion that she doesn’t have the stamina to be President of the United States and in a notable exchange towards the end of the debate, she brought up the story of Alicia Machado, a Miss Universe winner from the 1990s whom Trump has called “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping”.
This morning, Trump repeated his past statements about Machado, while Clinton’s campaign team followed up the debate with a prepared video expanding on the story to cement the argument that Trump is sexist, setting up a continued public battle that will likely hurt Trump in the end with the key group of suburban women.
Donald Trump called her “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.”
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 27, 2016