The strategy of shooting from the hip that propelled Donald Trump to the Republican nomination made him look unprepared against Secretary Hillary Clinton during the first general election presidential debate. In a CNN poll of viewers, Clinton overwhelmingly won 62 percent - 27 percent. In the station’s focus group of 20 swing state voters in Florida, 18 remarked that Clinton bested Trump.
If there was one defining moment in the first presidential debate, it was when Trump jabbed Clinton for preparing for the contest instead of campaigning. “You’ve seen me, I’ve been all over the place. You decided to stay home and that’s okay.” Her response set the stage for the balance of the exchange, “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” said Clinton. “And yes I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.” The roar in the audience, who wasn’t supposed to cheer at all, let Clinton know she scored the line of the night.
Where Trump did excel was in the exchange about the economy which opened up the debate. Perhaps given the benefit of the doubt for being a successful businessperson, Trump’s talk about creating jobs and halting job leakage to foreign markets seems to connect with underemployed Americans on the campaign trail, and succeeded in resonating with viewers. In this opening part of the debate, Trump’s well-rehearsed quips about business success, running the country like a business and lack of business success under Democratic leadership made points on stage.
However, with questions about releasing taxes, support of the Iraq War, and treatment of women, Clinton landed multiple jabs. When Clinton challenged that Trump paid no income taxes, he responded, “That makes me smart.” Clinton continued, “That means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.” Later Clinton claimed Trump, “rooted for the housing crisis” so he could purchase properties at a discount. He quipped, “That’s called business by the way.”
Pressed by Trump to release the 30,000 emails on her private server, Clinton admitted on the biggest stage yet, that using a private server was a mistake. “I made a mistake using a private email. I’m not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake.” She then successfully pivoted back toward Trump’s unwillingness not to release taxes.
For voters of color, the section of the debate focused on race relations may have been the most revealing. Trump emphasized the need for “law and order,” seemed to blame crime on “illegal immigrants,” and painted a bleak existence for people of color, “…African Americans, Hispanics are living in hell, because it’s so dangerous.”
Trump awkwardly explained how he settled lawsuits in the 1970s for not renting to people of color, and defended his ‘birther movement’ questioning President Obama’s country of birth, “I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate and I think I did a good job.” His use of the term, “Hispanic,” instead of the much more politically acceptable term, “Latino,” that is used by Clinton is an indication he hasn’t connected with the country’s largest minority ethnic population.
His repeated call for policies like New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” where the vast majority of people searched were brown and black men, was a clear message that Trump wants to instill racial profiling. Even when told the policy was ruled unconstitutional, Trump persisted, touting its effectiveness.
In this ‘Round One,’ Clinton had more success in appealing to middle class voters than Trump, with both targeting the demographic. In these high stakes debates, expect a poll bump for Clinton in the coming week. Still at question is the disposition of millennial voters that have been tough for Clinton to win over post Bernie Sanders’ lengthy campaign. Despite winning the first debate, did Hillary do enough to sway young millennials that helped to build the Obama coalition and buoy Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary? November will tell.