By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
For the second presidential debate last night, the scene was set by the revelation of a tape in which Donald Trump boasted about grabbing women’s genitalia, which Trump responded to by inviting Bill Clinton’s accusers from the past to the debate hall with the express intent of attacking Hillary Clinton as an enabler of sexual violence. This made for an instantly awkward affair, and resulted in one of the strangest and nastiest presidential debates in American political history.
But in the end, what matters is the question whether either candidate was able to use the debate to their advantage so as to make concrete advances towards winning in November, and in that respect neither candidate can be said to have clearly won the debate.
The debate had plenty of remarkable Donald Trump moments that would have effectively ended any other candidate’s run. From announcing that he would jail Hillary Clinton if he were to become President, to declaring that he has more respect for women than anyone else, and directly contradicting his running mate Mike Pence’s statement that the United States should be prepared to bomb Syrian government targets, we have become accustomed to hearing from Trump in these ways.
[Source: VOA, Public Domain]
Trump pulled out every last piece of material he could against Hillary Clinton, from alleging that she had defended the rapist of a 12-year old in 1975 and laughed about it, to her having started the birther conspiracy theory during her primary battle with Barack Obama in 2008. At times, viewers who don’t spend a significant amount on conservative social media and websites like Breitbart News, would have been at a loss as to the source and meaning of Trump’s steady stream of attacks.
Attacks like these galvanize Trump’s core supporters, who love seeing him attack Hillary Clinton with material usually reserved to gossip and conspiracy theories, but the problem Trump has is that in order to win he needs to make progress with groups who are not his core supporters. At the very least, Trump needs to shore up support among typical Republican voters, especially with white women.
In 2012, Mitt Romney won white women with 56%, but currently Trump is behind Clinton with white women 48% to 46%. Unless he can improve these numbers, and also improve with minority voters and young voters, Trump will have a hard time getting above 45% of the vote, and if anything his performance last night is likely to alienate undecided voters further.
Clinton on the other hand did not have a strong debate either. While she avoided major errors, she did not clearly outperform Donald Trump either, and she appeared somewhat rattled by the deeply personal attacks being leveled against her by Donald Trump. Her attempts to move past Trump’s attacks didn’t work as well as they did in the first debate.
Arguably, all she had to do was get through the 90 minutes without making a major error because in the polls she still has a clear advantage. In that respect she probably did nothing to hurt her chances of winning the election, but she also didn’t come away the clear winner. Instead, she is relying on voters to conclude themselves that Donald Trump is not fit for the White House based on his behavior, which is not a game changing move for a debate.
What happens next will likely change the course of the election instead. After Trump’s taped remarks were made public by the Washington Post on Saturday, many high-profile Republicans distanced themselves from Trump, though few took the more dramatic step of taking back their endorsements. Trump has announced that he wants to aggressively go after Republican candidates who defy him, which could trigger an escalation of the simmering discontent within the Republican Party over Donald Trump.
In other words, neither candidate can be said to have come away from this debate as a clear winner, and both are now severely damaged by the events of this campaign to the point where winning in November may in the end amount to a pyrrhic victory that handicaps them once in office.