If the first debate was novelty, and the second chaos, the third and final debate might be described as providing clarity. This time around, viewers were accustomed to the sight of Donald Trump on the debate stage, setting up a challenge for him to present himself as a potential President, and to somehow turn the race around in his favor after weeks of sinking in the polls. In that respect, Trump didn’t deliver.
Instead, Trump provided an unconvincing performance that stood in sharp contrast to Clinton’s steady preparedness. He began calm, but displayed his characteristic volatility later in the debate, and lingered on issues that don’t help him expand his appeal with voters who don’t already enthusiastically support him. His suggestion that he may not accept the outcome of the election sparked instant outrage across the political spectrum, and will dominate the headlines along with his description of Clinton as a “nasty woman”.
Going into the debate, Clinton had a clear advantage. She has taken a solid lead over Trump in the polls since the first debate on September 26th. As a result, the debate was mostly a battle over typically Republican voters, especially white educated women, who have doubts about voting for Trump, because he needed to defend his ground with these voters first, if he was to have a chance at recovery.
Thanks to Chris Wallace’s strong moderating, the debate was substantive in comparison to the previous two and it was focused on issues that are of particular concern to conservative voters, such as gun regulation, immigration, abortion, and the Supreme Court. In his answers, Trump moved to reassure those voters that they can rely on him on these issues by sticking to the standard Republican positions on them, while Clinton gave a spirited defense of her own stance that avoided major errors.
This meant that the debate was mostly fought on Trump’s turf, making it hard for him to break out and go after voters in the middle. The problem for Trump is that he needs to do more than just shore up Republican support. To make progress towards winning the election, he also needs to either convince undecided voters to go for him, or turn out his base voters at unprecedented levels. Last night, he did not succeed at doing either, primarily because his suggestion that he might not accept the outcome of the election if he loses overshadows his entire performance.
If he did succeed at improving with one important voting group that has had some doubts about him, it would likely be the religious right. For many religious voters the Supreme Court is a critical issue, because the next President will be able to define the balance of the Court for years to come, and Trump provided a powerful reminder of that fact at the debate. Most on the religious right already support him, but the question is whether Trump can also overcome the moral disapproval many holdouts feel about him.
The overall result is a potentially awkward situation for Trump. Having apparently missed his final big stage opportunity to turn the race around, he looks unlikely to win on November 8th, even if his poll numbers improve somewhat. Barring an unforeseen dramatic event that changes the dynamic of the race, if the Republican Party also comes to that conclusion more broadly in the coming days, this could trigger a cascade of candidates for other offices quietly jumping ship in attempts to protect their own chances of re-election.
Given that he lashed out at establishment Republicans who moved to distance themselves from him after the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, the big question is how Trump will handle a situation like that.
By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
Cover image: Voice of America (Public Domain)