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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

First Debate: Clinton Focused, Trump Flails, While Limited Data Gives Edge to HRC

In the first of the 2016 presidential debates following the conventions, Donald Trump was most effective with his initial volley of trade-bashing, but on most of the other topics, all he could provide was bluff and bluster. At several points during the debate Trump resembled a nervous high schol D student trying to distract attention from his failure to do any of his homework, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received numerous commentator plaudits for her preparedness for the debate.

In his slate.com post, “Clinton Victorious in First Two Debate Snap Polls,” Ben Mathis-Lilley reports on the findings of survey data:

The most meaningful indexes of how the debate changed what the American people think—new polls of likely voters taken entirely after Monday’s debate—won’t be out for several days. But what we do have are two quick polls that cover what debate viewers thought.

  • A PPP poll found that viewers thought Clinton had won the debate by a 51-40 margin. Among that group, 40 percent of viewers said the debate had made them more likely to vote for Clinton vs. 35 percent who said it’d made them more likely to vote for Trump.
  • A CNN/ORC poll found that 62 percent of viewers thought Clinton won vs. 27 percent who thought Trump did so. That’s the most lopsided result in CNN’s data set, which goes back until 1984, except for Romney smoking Obama 67-25 at their first debate in 2012. Of CNN’s respondents, 34 percent said the debate had made them more likely to vote for Clinton while 18 percent said it had made them more likely to vote for Trump.

It’s impossible to say with this limited data how many truly undecided voters had their minds changed tonight, but at the least it’s evidence that HRC didn’t underwhelm the expectation that she would perform more competently than Trump. She definitely went right out there and whelmed!

Breaking down the above-noted CNN/ORC poll a little more, CNN reports:

Voters who watched said Clinton expressed her views more clearly than Trump and had a better understanding of the issues by a margin of more than 2-to-1. Clinton also was seen as having done a better job addressing concerns voters might have about her potential presidency by a 57 percent to 35 percent margin, and as the stronger leader by a 56 percent to 39 percent margin.

The gap was smaller on which candidate appeared more sincere and authentic, though still broke in Clinton’s favor, with 53 percent saying she was more sincere vs. 40 percent who felt Trump did better on that score. Trump topped Clinton 56 percent to 33 percent as the debater who spent more time attacking their opponent.

Although the survey suggested debate watchers were more apt to describe themselves as Democrats than the overall pool of voters, even independents who watched deemed Clinton the winner, 54 percent vs. 33 percent who thought Trump did the best job in the debate.

And the survey suggests Clinton outperformed the expectations of those who watched. While pre-debate interviews indicated these watchers expected Clinton to win by a 26-point margin, that grew to 35 points in the post-debate survey.

At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver cautions:

Clinton bested Trump in the first presidential debate according to a variety of metrics, and the odds are that she’ll gain in head-to-head polls over Trump in the coming days…As a warning, you should give the debate five to seven days to be fully reflected in FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts. It will take a couple of days before reliable, post-debate polls are released, and then another couple of days before the model recognizes them to be part of a trend instead of potential outliers. Also, check the dates carefully on polls released over the next few days to make sure they were conducted after the debate. Although pollsters released dozens and dozens of polls over the weekend in anticipation of the debate, there are probably a few pre-debate stragglers that will slip through.

Wall St. Journal reporters Laura Meckler, Allison Kite and Colleen McCain Nelson report on the results of a focus group of undecided voters viewing thew debate in Cleveland conducted by Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis. “At the end of the debate, 11 people said Mrs. Clinton won, no one said Mr. Trump won, and 17 people said neither candidate won.”

At The Daily 202, James Hohman adds,

Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group of undecided voters in Pennsylvania. Sixteen said Hillary Clinton won. Five picked Trump, per CBS News….

In a Florida focus group organized by CNN, 18 of 20 undecided voters picked Clinton as the winner.

…In a separate instant-poll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, 51 percent said Clinton won and 40 percent picked Trump.

Eight in 10 insiders in the key battleground states thought Clinton performed better, including 57 percent of Republicans, according to the Politico Caucus survey.

Veteran Republican operative David Gergen, now a commentator, observed,

By all traditional standards of debate, Mrs. Clinton crushed. She carefully marshaled her arguments and facts and then sent them into battle with a smile. She rolled out a long list of indictments against Donald Trump, often damaging. By contrast, he came in unprepared, had nothing fresh to say, and increasingly gave way to rants. As the evening ended, the media buried him in criticisms.

“In the end, the lawyerly preparations paid off for Mrs Clinton, as she controlled the evening with forensic precision,” said BBC’s Anthony Zurcher. “While Trump had a strategy – and pursued it on occasion – he was often blown off course by the former secretary of state and torpedoed by his own sometimes badgering performance.”

Crediting Trump with “advantage in some of the debate’s early exchanges, John Cassidy writes at The New Yorker that, “As the night wore on, and as the discussions got more detailed, his lack of respect for the format got him into all sorts of trouble.”

Among Clinton’s more effective responses, her comment on Trump’s hidden tax forms resonates: “I think probably he’s not all that enthusiastic about having the rest of our country see what the real reasons are, because it must be something really important, even terrible, that he’s trying to hide…So you’ve got to ask yourself: Why won’t he release his tax returns? Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is … maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.”

Cassidy notes further,

Here, you’d expect the target of the attack to sense the danger. Evidently, Trump didn’t. Having interrupted Clinton during most of her previous answers, he did so again. “That makes me smart,” he said.

Even on Twitter, where people were pulling apart Trump’s words with the relish of a class of third graders dissecting a worm, it took a few seconds for this statement to sink in. Had he really just boasted that he didn’t pay any federal taxes? Indeed, he had.

And that wasn’t the end of it. After Clinton pointed out the implications of Trump’s boast—“So if he’s paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health”—Holt changed the subject and asked about her e-mails. She said what she has said before: that setting up a private e-mail server while serving as Secretary of State was a mistake, for which she accepted responsibility.

Clinton scored another zinger on the topic later on, after Trump said America was broke because of big spending by liberals like Clinton. She who responded with “And maybe because you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years.”

Clinton also wounded Trump with his largest constituency: As Cassidy recounts,

I have met a lot of the people who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald,” Clinton said, baldly but calmly. “I’ve met dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, marble installers, drapery installers—like my dad was—who you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do. We have an architect in the audience who designed one of your club houses at one of your golf courses. It’s a beautiful facility. It immediately was put to use. And you wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you to do.

Addressing Trump’s six bankruptcies, Clinton responded “There are a lot of great businesspeople that have never taken bankruptcy once.” Cassidy adds,

Trump simply couldn’t zip it and move on. “I built an unbelievable company, some of the greatest assets anywhere in the world,” he said. Then, referring to the bankruptcies, he added, “Four times … we used certain laws that are there. And when Secretary Clinton talks about people that didn’t get paid, first of all, they did get paid a lot, but [I’ve] taken advantage of the laws of the nation.”

It will be interesting to see how Trump’s defense of screwing his blue collar subcontractors plays with   working-class voters.

TDS managing editor Ed Kilgore summed up Clinton’s win at New York Magazine:

Hillary Clinton exceeded the very high bar the news media set for her and won on style (smooth versus incoherent), on substance (on stop-and-frisk, on ISIS, on birtherism, on tax returns, on tax policy, on NATO, on Trump’s business record), on endurance, and on visuals. It’s hard to find a topic on which Trump scored a clean point.

Trump was especially ridiculous when he bragged about his temperament, and one of  the best zingers of the evening, came towards the end of the debate, when Clinton responded to Trump’s put-down about Clinton’s “stamina”:

As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee he can talk to me about stamina.

Through it all, Clinton appeared calm and focused, while Trump seemed agitated, as he struggled with a case of the sniffles. Many commentators noted his stark lack of preparation for the debate in comparison to his adversary, and not a few saw it as an indication that he was poorly-prepared to serve as president.

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