Donald Trump didn’t win the battle of ideas, but he might have set himself up to win the battle of minds.
If you take the time to watch last night’s presidential debate, you’ll quickly see why. Clinton appeared weary and her voice was robotic. Her performance was competent, but deeply uninspiring. She listlessly recited answers, answers that she had clearly been spoken many times before.
But Trump made a lot of mistakes last night. He let the conversation dwell on his failures, which hurt him. Trump’s deflections about his birtherism and support of the Iraq War were particularly poor.
Take this exchange:
Trump could have acknowledged his actions and moved on. He could have deflected and tried to pivot the exchange back to Clinton’s use of a private email server. He could have declined to answer the question.
Almost anything would have been better than the answer he gave. Instead, Trump pushed back, and gave a rambling non-answer that allowed Clinton and the moderator to linger on a losing issue, an issue that reflects Trump’s worst qualities.
That wasn’t even the worst answer to come out of Trump’s mouth last night:
Trump knew there was a high chance he would be asked about his apparent support for the Iraq War, and he gave a rambling non-answer in which he invoked Sean Hannity’s name eight times. With other presidential candidates, you can take a certain level of preparation for granted, but that isn’t the case for Trump. The Trump campaign signaled that Trump would be skipping “conventional” debate prep prior to last night’s debate. It’s very clear that he didn’t prepare adequately.
From the limited post-debate polling we’ve seen, it seems as if Clinton has won a strong victory. Public Policy Polling has Clinton ahead by eleven points in a survey of likely voters. CNN has Clinton ahead by about a two-to-one ratio, albeit in a Democratic-leaning sample of the electorate.
But Trump did demonstrate a real knack for the basics of debate and speech last night. Trump is a gifted, dynamic orator. His presence and body language is excellent. When he’s speaking, he seems to own the room. He’s much more effective at communication than Clinton.
With those fundamental qualities, Trump doesn’t need a tremendous level of preparation to beat Clinton. He just needs to engage in mock debates and to be coached. He needs to develop concise, coherent answers to common questions, particularly questions about his personal scandals.
And there’s certainly room for Trump to come back. Barack Obama lost the first presidential debate in 2012 by about the same margin that Trump did, and slipped several points in the polls. Obama learned his lesson. He rallied for the subsequent debates, delivered much stronger performances, and ultimately won the presidency.
Trump should take Obama’s example as a guide. If he can give firmer answers and pivot away from his past controversies, he’s got a good shot to beat Clinton. With Trump, it definitely feels like you have to grade on a curve, but his fundamental debate skills are strong enough to make up for a tenuous grasp of details.
Trump is an excellent speaker with a good grasp of politics. If he can exercise the preparation and tact of a typical presidential candidate, he’ll easily beat Clinton in the next debate.