Professor David Ribar, Depty Director Melbourne Institute; Dr Lauren Rosewarne, School of Social and Political Science; and James Cahill, Deputy Editor Election Watch, Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne.
The experts from Election Watch at the Melbourne School of Government give their verdicts on the first of the three Presidential debates between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Professor David Ribar, Deputy Director Melbourne Institute
With more fireworks than an American 4th of July, the first US Presidential debate between Democrat candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate and property developer Donald Trump was riveting, must-see television. It was also a surprisingly effective policy battle – though fought using completely different tactics by the two candidates.
Viewers who wanted policy details got heaps of information from Clinton, who offered a comprehensive list of initiatives to grow the American economy, improve outcomes for the country’s middle class, strengthen policing, heal race relations, address the problems of America’s inner cities, counter cyber vulnerabilities, and fight ISIS.
Beyond a handful of contradictory, unacceptable, and unrealistic promises, Trump offered few clues as to how he would govern. Among his contradictory proposals was a plan to cut taxes while bemoaning the loads of debt the US has piled up. Among the unacceptable promises was a call to institute “stop and frisk” policing policies that aren’t in the purview of the US federal government and that US courts have already ruled are unconstitutional. Among the unrealistic were proposals for ripping up negotiated trade deals and military alliances.
Trump’s strategy, however, wasn’t to offer policy specifics but rather to discredit Clinton’s and thereby discredit her. In this regard, Trump’s responses were nothing to sniff about – though sniff and sniffle he did. In every segment of the debate Trump emphasised the country’s problems – job losses, rising murder rates, and increasing threats at home and abroad.
Trump followed this litany of woe with effective criticisms of the failure of politicians generally, and of President Barack Obama and Clinton specifically, to address these problems. He repeatedly asked Clinton why she didn’t fix these problems during her long years of service. Trump clearly played to his strengths as an outsider.
Of the two, Clinton clearly was more poised and mostly side-stepped trouble –aside from seeming to downplay some of the terrible violence affecting America’s cities and coming across as whinging in directing viewers to her website for fact-checking.
In contrast, Trump was boorish, frequently interrupting, seldom answering the questions that were asked, and audibly groaning during several of Clinton’s responses. His worst moment, after a solid hour of this churlish behaviour, was boasting that he had a better temperament than Clinton, which provoked guffaws from the audience. His constant sniffling undercut any claims about the relative health and stamina of the candidates.
Nevertheless, it’s doubtful that many minds were changed. Supporters on each side heard what they needed to hear. And neither candidate landed a crushing blow.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne, expert in advertising and media, School of Social and Political Sciences
For the first couple of moments, Trump’s tone was under control. Clinton’s was shaky, her sentences over-rehearsed. Initially he accomplished a natural, off-the-cuff persona. She was stiff and awkward.
While the consensus is that debates only provide testimony to confirmation bias, I nonetheless started to wonder whether Trump could actually pull off presidential.
As it turns out, it only took minutes for the whole thing to unravel and for Trump to demonstrate that no, he can’t do statesman. In fact, not only can he not do statesman, but he apparently can’t do decent high school debater either.
Mere minutes in, and he was talking over Clinton, talking over the moderator. That initially neutral face of composure all too quickly morphed into a pinched mash-up of irritation and belligerence. The idea of being forced to stand silently and listen seemed preposterous; the concept of “debate” completely foreign to him.
Through all his very audible sniffling-into-the-mic, Trump came across as shouty, sarcastic, and cantankerous. Rather than modulating the arrogance he’s been widely panned for, instead he doubled-down: something illustrated by repeated mentions to his mammon.
He went so far as to pat himself on the back for not saying “something extremely rough to Hillary”, all the while being unable to resist the siren’s call of fat-shaming – apparently the cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee could have been “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” and, hilariously, the tried and true ‘you-love-it-so-much-why-don’t-you-marry-it’ schoolyard zinger of “the Iran deal that you’re so in love with”.
Trump was out of control. Of his mouth and his emotions. And in turn he perfectly validated the sceptism his doubters have about his diplomatic dexterity.
Clinton, on the flipside, was composed. She didn’t bite when he baited; rather, she stood there with a smile that vacillated between mirth and mild mockery, and waited her turn to speak with patience, with decorum.
She played to her strengths. Those first few words were excessively crafted and they were her weakest moments. But the very second she trusted herself enough to respond on the fly, she was calm, unruffled, and provided a persuasive reminder that this is her game, her stomping ground, her presidency.
Tonight’s debate served as proof that while he might have showmanship and celebrity, politics – in the broadest sense of the world – aren’t in the Trump skillset.
James Cahill, Deputy Editor Election Watch
Well, the straightforward question has to be asked: Who won?
Forced to answer, I’d say Clinton, but this was no knockout. Her performance will likely help her make some progress with her intended audiences – moderate Republicans uncomfortable with Trump and wavering young Democrats. Trump largely stuck to his standard message and it would be unlikely if he won over many voters not already in his camp.
For voters that already like either candidate, there was plenty in this debate to confirm their preference. Both candidates largely played to their strengths.
Trump was feisty, occasionally combative, and got his general message across several times – the US is a mess, we’re getting ripped off by the world, and it’s mostly the fault of career politicians like Clinton. He was able to weave several sections of his standard rally speech into his responses and delivered a number of his most popular applause lines.
Clinton was steady, prepared, comfortable across a broad range of topics, and didn’t commit any noticeable mistakes. I’m sure her campaign would be relieved that the topic of her emails received limited attention.
Strategically, I don’t think this debate will help Trump move beyond his apparent polling ceiling of roughly 43-44%. The part of the Republican voting coalition that is most resistant to Trump’s candidacy are college-educated, white, married women. Over-reliance on his well-known material and repeatedly interrupting Clinton are not likely to change the minds of many of these voters.
Over the last week, there were leaks from the Trump campaign that debate preparations were not going well and that the candidate was even resistant to preparing at all. Many thought this was gamesmanship intended to lower expectations.
Having watched the debate, I think those stories might be true. Trump often struggled to fill out the full two minutes of responses to questions. He gave a rambling and inconsistent answer on why he won’t release his tax returns and got into an extended argument with both Clinton and moderator Lester Holt on whether he supported the 2003 Iraq War.
As much as possible, Clinton attempted to avoid direct confrontation with Trump. She may be placing faith in the post-debate media spin to highlight many of the same falsehoods and inconsistencies that Trump has told throughout the campaign.
I suspect that Clinton might get a small bounce in the polls but that the race will remain close, with Clinton maintaining her small lead.
This article has been co-published with Election Watch USA, an initiative of the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne.
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