Hillary wins the debate, but not necessarily the people

Plenty of keyboards have already been called into action to provide quick analyses of last night’s stormer of a presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  To give just a flavour of some of the more prescient online commentary, this is the Washington Post take from Dana Milbank; Howard Kurtz gives a pretty balanced view from the right of the spectrum on Fox News; while the liberal viewpoint is most articulately expressed by Michelle Goldberg on Slate.  Politico meanwhile remains a forcing house of regular and detailed commentaries.

The commentariat consensus is that Hillary won – and unequivocally so.  Even Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani admitted as much in a tweet he sent.  But Giuliani’s tweet also offers – unusually – a proper cautionary note for the Clintonites.  She may win the debate and the plaudits of political insiders, as well as those voters who are more politically switched on than their peers.  Whether the debate will have translated that into an appeal to those who are largely alienated by politics is another matter, and Trump’s one decent gambit last night was to keep identifying Clinton with the “failed” political establishment.

We already know that the hard-core Trump supporters will never be convinced by anything other than what Clinton characterised as a “Trump reality” that bears little relation to facts.  What Clinton needed to do was to try and win back some of that support which she appeared to have after the Democratic convention but which has dissipated over the course of the summer.

Certainly Mrs. Clinton exceeded expectations in the debate, while Trump probably came in under his.  All the more remarkable given that expectations for Clinton were already high – she was seen as a capable and professional debater who masters her brief exceptionally well – and those for Trump were correspondingly low – he was seen as a man of bluster and bluff with little regard for the facts.

It turned out to be Clinton who scored the more aggressive hits, on Trump’s income tax returns, his “stiffing” of ordinary workers who worked for his companies, or his racism over the Obama Birther affair.  She maintained poise, looked relaxed, went in for the kill with appropriate but not over the top aggression.  She arguably didn’t press one or two issues enough.  She could have pressed further on his tax returns, or seized upon his implicit admission that he hadn’t paid federal tax in years.  She could have pressed on his pursuit of Obama’s birth well after the president made his birth certificate public.  She could have been specific in calling him out as an early supporter of the Iraq war.  But these are quibbles.  The debate went well for her.  The only issue is whether it will have been enough to bring voters back into the fold.

For Trump, the issue is a little different.  He has defied all expectations and all campaigning conventions to get where he is today – that is, within a whisker of winning the White House.  No-one expects him to be articulate, no-one even really expects him to understand and ally himself with facts or, more broadly, the truth.  None of his nearly 40% of hard-core supporters are going to move away from him simply because his blustery one-liners didn’t work in a debate, or because he was called out on various contortions of reality, or even because he is a giant narcissist who only talked about himself.  So emotionally based is his appeal that it is impervious to facts and events.   I thought one of his most astute points was when he noted that Clinton had spent hundreds of millions of pounds on television adverts attacking him, while he had spent nothing, and yet they were still level-pegging in the polls.

Trump is the anti-candidate, and to succeed he just needs to continue to exist.  The real issue for America in November is whether enough American voters – especially those in the so-called swing states – are nihilistic, alienated and angry enough to tell reality to go hang and put Trump in the White House.  We already know he can’t get there because he is better qualified, or more astute, or has a better understanding of politics, or is a more eloquent and articulate speaker.  He is none of these things and Clinton beats him handily on each one.  Her unpopularity remains mysterious in many ways for a woman who has genuinely dedicated herself to a lifetime of public service, and who has come up from relatively humble origins.  But she is now the single most lethal personification of the politics of old, of the establishment, and if enough people are alienated from all of that, then she can’t win them over.

This is an election between primal instinct and rational thought, and rational thought has an uphill battle.  That is why it may not matter that Hillary Clinton won the debate.  Donald Trump isn’t campaigning that way, and his support base isn’t interested.  So if you haven’t yet seen it yet do watch it and enjoy – it was a great and rumbustuous debate (although the audience should have been allowed to make more noise!).  But for all the viewership – the highest for any presidential debate – it may not have mattered much.