Last night’s Presidential Debate was the zenith of a wild, two-week period of shocks, twists and turns beginning with New York Times scooping Donald Trump’s tax returns and ending with the now infamous audio of Trump and Access Hollywood host, Billy Bush lewdly and crudely talking about co-host Nancy O’Dell. Even for die-hard Trump supporters this audio was stunning in its vulgarity and his assertion that he can get away with groping women because, “…[W]hen you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Yikes.
For the Republican establishment this was beyond the pale. They had only reluctantly endorsed Trump, so their allegiances were loose, and cutting the cord in the face of this was a no-brainer. Republican Congress members including Rep. Jason Chaffetz (UT) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH) ran as fast as they could from their already tepid endorsements. Trump’s campaign was officially now a raging fire burning to a crisp right before our eyes.
Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) withdraws his endorsement of Trump in the wake of leaked audio scandal.
Trump’s leaked-audio fiasco was less than 48 hours before the start of the second debate. And literally in the wee hours of Saturday morning—the day before the debate--Trump issued a terse Facebook video absent of any real contrition that just compounded the issue. He was smart to use social media, knowing that traditional media would not provide him with any cover or grace, but his “I’m sorta sorry, but Bill Clinton is worse” petulant presentation was so incredibly tone deaf and wrong, I had to wonder if he was throwing this election on purpose.
Merely hours before the debate, Trump patched together what seemed to be a hastily arranged press conference on Facebook live, featuring three women that had accused Bill Clinton of rape in the past as well as another woman who was raped as a child, whose rapist was defended by Hillary Clinton and only served 10 months in jail. Watching these women flanking Trump on either side, accusing an ex-President and spouse of Trump’s current opponent for the Presidency, of rape was shocking indeed, but the presentation did not resonate emotionally with viewers. It felt like a carny ploy to rattle the Clintons rather than being based in any real care and concern for the women. Rumor has it that the Clintons were not amused.
In the middle of Donald Trump’s very bad two weeks, were the oddly-under reported Wikileaks email dumps, the direct result of a hack of Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta. Among the findings was confirmation of long-held public suspicions of Hillary Clinton’s way-too-cozy relationship to Wall Street . The emails revealed that Clinton had, during her speech, made statements that directly contradicted what she’d been saying to the public on the campaign trail. But because Trump’s campaign was a five-alarm inferno, few noticed this small Clinton garbage fire in the back.
With this backdrop of hell for the Trump campaign, he needed to hit it out of the park last night during the debate. He needed to appear presidential, contrite and keep Clinton on her heels and visibly uncomfortable. Though his performance was much improved from the first debate, he didn’t accomplish any of the three.
Here are three takeaways from last night’s debate:
Trump doesn’t understand women voters or the electorate beyond his base
Trump needed to be contrite, show extreme humility and embarrassment to get over the barrier that the leaked audio presented to his campaign. More than 24 hours after the release of his trainwreck Facebook “apology” video, he was still defiant, only vaguely apologetic and making logical pleas to voters about focusing on issues that he felt would affect them more directly (defense, immigration, etc). That may or may not be true and certainly not up for discussion in this article, but what was needed was an emotional connection voters—especially women voters-- and instead he presented an argument based on (his) logic, which only appealed to his base. He had an opportunity here, a spotlight and an audience of millions watching, to which to turn this around and he focused not on his own misdeeds, not on his opponent, but the opponent’s husband. Moreover, he was rambling and inarticulate rather than making clean, crisp points. He only appealed to his base, that wanted to see a defiant and angry Trump take down the establishment. That’s not a winning strategy in the general.
Hillary Clinton, who is certainly not known for her skill with connecting emotionally with voters, did a much better job of connecting emotionally on this issue. Yes, she is a woman, and therefore had the advantage in this one, but she presented a more cogent, caring case.
This was a lost opportunity for Trump and set the tone for the whole debate.
Clinton only had to tread water and keep a straight face. She did.
The bar was low for Clinton because the Trump campaign was in total crisis. All she had to do was tread water and not implode. She was immaculately prepared, poised and didn’t have any noticeable gaffes. Surprisingly, she did flail when talking about Syria and it’s clear she is far more comfortable talking about domestic policy.
Additionally, Clinton’s response to the Wikleaks revelation that that she had a “public position and a private position” on Wall Street reform , attributing it to Abraham Lincoln of all people (?!?) was a laughable head-scratcher of a response that Donald Trump rightfully took a full swing on. But besides that, she largely held her own through Trump’s performance peaks and valleys through what was a rancorous and nasty debate. And given the press pile-on that Trump was suffering, she didn’t have to do much to be declared the winner. She knew that, and delivered.
Trump stanched the bleeding, but the bruises are still there and won’t heal in time, barring a major leak or revelation, to beat Clinton.
No one knew what to expect from Trump, and though he delivered an uneven performance, he did much better than expected. But it’s not enough to win. He was so battered by the last two weeks that a draw would be essentially a loss. Trump did not completely implode, and stopped the bleeding among his base, but did he win any new supporters or people on the fence about him? Most likely not. CNN polled voters thought that Trump cleared the bar, but still thought Clinton won. Most other polls show similar trends.
Less than a month out from the election and with this scandal raging in the background, this isn’t good news for the Trump team. He didn’t make things worse (how could it get worse), but he’s not making any headway. The bruising from these scandals are too deep to move the needle now and there is not enough time. Barring some shocking Wikileaks revelation or other Black Swan event, Clinton is going to win the White House easily. Anything can happen (especially in this election cycle), but unless it does, say “hello” to Madame President.
Dr.Tricia Callender, Ph.D is the President and CEO of Spanner Strategies, LLC, a digital campaign strategy firm with offices in New York and Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.