By Joe Moresky
The art of debate is an intellectual crucible. Schools of thought clash over points of in a civilized form of cerebral warfare, attempting to persuade.
Presidential debates are another beast.
Candidates strive to project a calculated image of leadership to accentuate their credentials, articulate general themes to showcase a coherent vision for the nation and finally delve into specific policy issues to display competency.
Candidates endure hours of intense preparation during which complex topics must be gruelingly distilled into a few points, which candidates must be able to remember and recite under intense scrutiny.
After months of intense anticipation, American voters finally witnessed Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stand together on the same stage. No crowds, no aides and no teleprompters, just the candidates and their competing personas. What occurred was an event in which character distinctions overpowered issue specificity. The inadequate moderation from NBC’s Lester Holt aided in this and ensured that each candidate could easily drift off topic.
The onset of the debate mirrored the experience of the viewer, with Trump and Clinton seemingly unsure of how the night would unfold. Trump began with a considerably higher degree of composure than voters have been accustomed to but also appeared to be uncomfortable, noteed by frequent drinks of water and a mysterious bought of sniffling. Ironically, as the event progressed and his confidence grew, Trump’s newfound sense of maturity gave way to his familiar, bombastic self. Interruptions were frequent, and denials the preferred form of rebuttal.
However, he scored points through challenging the Obama administration’s handling of the withdrawal from Iraq and was able to criticize Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server without devolving into name-calling. His rhetoric on trade likely resonated with rust-belt voters, which may help consolidate a base of working class support in states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But base consolidation was not what Trump had to accomplish Monday night. Instead of projecting a newly-presidential demeanor and attempting to draw in disaffected moderates and undecided voters, Trump stuck to his status quo.
Clinton’s unimaginative performance was much more articulate, substantive and direct in comparison to her opponent. She displayed a tight command on the issues and was able to develop a far more coherent vision for how the country ought to move forward. By conventional standards, Clinton might have been judged the clear-cut winner.
Regardless of the “winner” of last night’s debates, previous ones have done little to statistically impact presidential races, according to NBC News. Whatever polling bumps occur usually self-correct after the conclusion of the final contest.
A general rule of thumb is that candidates cannot pick up sustainable momentum from debates, but costly gaffes have the potential to bring about lingering doubts and an accompanying negative poll impact. Monday’s debate lacked such a standout moment and as a result the overall tenor of the race can be expected to remain much the same.
Although Clinton may have had the superior showing, the probability that her performance will translate into positive polling is small.