As I wrote last Tuesday, I was hoping to get the complete TV ratings for last Monday’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton before deciding how the results would impact the election. They’re apparently still not out, but I’ve found enough info in the news coverage to answer my biggest question, and conclude that the evening was a major setback for the Republican nominee – though not quite in the sense widely assumed.
The decision to delay stemmed from my feeling that knowing how long most viewers stuck with the contest could matter decisively in judging its effects. As per the conventional wisdom, it was clear to me that Clinton won the debate as a whole. But I also agreed that the Democratic standard-bearer was kept on the defensive for much of the first half hour by Trump. Since human attention spans are often short, I surmised that the more viewers who lost interest in the slugfest as it wore on, the fewer who saw those segments where Clinton skillfully baited Trump into protesting his personal failings way too much. Therefore, they would have missed those exchange in which he projected the childish, boorish bullying image that’s saddled him throughout the campaign – and understandably limited his appeal.
But at least according to the press coverage, most of the audience watched most of the full 98 minutes, and therefore saw Trump at his worst. Moreover, Trump’s insistence on sustaining his Twitter assault on former beauty queen Alicia Machado has amounted to doubling down on failure – for days. So the maverick businessman has indeed been bested – and the most reliable polls subsequently showed that strong majorities of Americans agreed.
The question still remains whether Trump’s hopes for the White House have been fatally damaged. My hunch: Quite possibly. But in my view, what’s just happened isn’t that Trump lost an opportunity to reassure and possibly win over some college-educated independent men and women and thereby overcome a narrow Clinton lead and widen his Electoral College path to the presidency. It’s that he’s squandered a chance to blow the race wide open.
After all, on the eve of the debate, Trump not only had drawn into a virtual tie in the national presidential polls. He was also displaying momentum or stabilizing the situation both in key traditional Republican strongholds where Clinton was making headway (like Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona), and in states that changing demographics have been turning first from Republican red to genuinely purple and now possibly to Democratic blue (like Colorado and Nevada). Moreover, the Trump rebound had been widely – and rightly – attributed to a focus on issues like the economy and national security
So imagine the effect had Trump responded to Clinton’s renewed charges of misogyny with something like, “Madame Secretary, this is really so sad – but so revealing. This country faces so many problems and crises – no good jobs, lousy growth, terrible infrastructure, failing schools, rising crime, unprotected borders, terrorism. And you’ve just decided to waste the precious time we have tonight by diving into the gutter. I won’t dignify this sleaze-mongering with an answer. And I hope you’ll return to focusing on the issues Americans really care about.”
This kind of statement would certainly have passed the “presidential test” – with flying colors. I suspect it would have been absolutely electrifying. And of course Trump missed other opportunities like this during the debate – notably moderator Lester Holt’s evident belief that his involvement with birther-ism is the country’s worst race relations problem.
But it could well be that the above amounts to wishing that pigs had wings. There’s no doubt that even with only five weeks left till Election Day, both candidates will have many more chances to redefine themselves and the presidential race – due to their own efforts and to the wild cards that an unpredictable world could throw into the mix. But the longer Trump obsesses on tabloid-level vendettas, the longer his campaign will remain a hostage to fortune – and needlessly so.