Debate Fallout Exacerbates Challenges for Trump Campaign

October 4, 2016


Donald Trump’s slide in the polls seems to confirm conventional wisdom that his widely panned performance last Monday has doomed his candidacy.

That’s both right and wrong.

Trump turned in one of the most dismal debate performances in modern times.  It began a week of negatives featuring the body shaming of a former Miss Universe, reports that he hasn’t paid income taxes in over a decade, and an order for the Trump Foundation to cease its activities.

The debate seems like the high point of the week.

I was lucky enough to be inside the debate hall where the audience reactions reaffirmed what was happening across the country.  Though we couldn’t see the split screen that the viewing audience saw, and thus missed the important contradictions between Trump’s words and Clinton’s reactions, it was notable that Trump’s outbursts largely landed like thuds.

Though scattered applause occurred, I mostly saw heads shaking in disbelief as Trump harangued his way through 90 minutes.  That’s telling because the campaigns both had an equal number of tickets to the debate.  Clinton and Trump supporters were scattered throughout the hall seated next to each other.  Hofstra students and those who attended as guests of the Commission on Presidential debates helped to fill up the hall.

Moderator Lester Holt tried to discourage applause or boos but a partisan and political junkie crowd is not easily cowed into silence.

Polls released yesterday by CNN confirm the collapse.  Trump and Clinton were virtually tied in early September.  Now she’s pulling away.  States like North Carolina remain tight but he has been unable to fight back in Virginia, Colorado, or New Hampshire.  He cannot get to 270 electoral votes without Florida and Clinton continues to lead in the Sunshine state.

Indeed every post debate poll shows a growing lead for Clinton.

It’s tempting to say that the debate has caused this.  But it’s much more complicated.

Recall that Mitt Romney bested Barack Obama in their first encounter.  John Kerry was widely viewed as the winner in all three of his debates with George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan’s first debate with Walter Mondale was so dismal for the incumbent that Reagan’s mental health became the subject of national conversation.

Obama, Bush, and Reagan were not ultimately harmed by debates as the fundamentals of the race favored them.   This race favors Clinton.

The debate magnified the doubts that many have held about Donald Trump for a very long time.    Voters have by wide margins questioned Trump’s temperament.  Last week’s debate confirmed their doubts.

It’s this long standing concern about his caustic style and chaotic campaign that is harming Donald Trump, not his poor debating skills.