Words matter

On a night like this, with hype like this, there’s probably no such thing as conventional wisdom. Especially the sort that says presidential debates don’t really change anything, particularly among an electorate that appears for the most part to have already made up its mind.

As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote, while Monday night’s debate was “the most anticipated event of a presidential campaign filled with remarkable and revolting moments,” changes in voter intentions now “seem to come in inches”.

But it’s those inches that could prove crucial in the coming days as we wait for the first national and swing-state opinion polls to reflect the candidates’ performances.

And “performances” they certainly were.

Veteran newsman Dan Rather wrote on Facebook : “I was surprised by how much this man who has made so much of the means of television spent not looking into the camera, but preoccupied with his adversary. Trump came across as amped, a pacing tiger ready to pounce on every answer. His interruptions suggest little regard to the rules. He’s itching for a fight… wants to swing wildly.

“At one point early in the debate Clinton, after multiple factually questionable assertions by Trump, said, “I have a feeling by the end of this debate I’ll be blamed for everything that ever happened.” Trump replied, “Why not?” That about summed it up.”

Supporters of both sides could probably take something from this opening encounter: Clinton clearly was well-prepared and became increasingly assured as the evening went on, while Trump – after being initially subdued – eventually released his unpredictable, blustery, argumentative self. And his always-on internal marketer was able to connect almost every issue that mentioned a specific US state to a Trump property there.

However he and his surrogates try to spin it, though, at times the Republican nominee came across as a tantrum-throwing five-year-old sparring with a kindergarten teacher who’d seen it all before.

Back and forth

First debates historically favour a challenger, since they have more to get off their chest and an incumbent’s record offers a bigger target. As you’ll see from this annotated transcript by NPR, Trump was able to hit Clinton on questions of trade, the economy and her deleted emails, as well as drawing a contrast between himself as a change agent and his opponent’s position as part of the political establishment.

Yet Clinton was able to return several times to her assertion that Trump’s temperament makes him unsuited to the top job. She succeeded in trying to get under his skin, as she did in being able to rise above some of Trump’s wilder claims.

Prompted by a disappointing performance by the moderator at the “Commander in Chief Forum” on national security a couple of weeks previously, there had been widespread discussion about whether it was the job of the moderator to fact-check the assertions of the candidates or whether that was primarily the responsibility of their opponent.

The general consensus was that last night’s moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, did pretty well.

Best corporate tweeter of the evening was probably Merriam-Webster, whose feed provided definitions of some of the words Trump was reaching for. And in a debating barb that could have been made for the dictionary publisher, it was able to quote Clinton chastising Trump by saying that “words matter.”

In recent days, Trump had restricted his media appearances to Fox News and expectations were generally low. In terms of proving his presidential suitability, he had a mountain to climb – but the potential to do so was in his hands.

But the big question to come out of last night is whether enough people – be they committed or undecided – will see anything in either performance that might change their minds. In short, the candidates were pretty much themselves. If you liked/disliked them before the debate, chances are you still like/dislike them today.

Drama in the run-up

With the event set to be the most-watched political debate ever, the TV networks had promoted it the same way they usually do a big football game – it was up against Monday Night Football in the schedules – and it came after a dramatic couple of weeks, with the bomb explosion in Manhattan and the subsequent manhunt again putting the focus on terrorism, national security and immigration.

Another row erupted over what the Clinton camp believed was Trump’s incitement to violence – suggesting that his opponent’s secret-service protection detail should be unarmed “and we’ll see what happens”.

There was also a contentious Twitter ad by the Trump campaign likening Syrian refugees to poisoned Skittles, to which the candy company gave a superb response to a reporter seeking comment.


Despite a late ad push by Libertarian Gary Johnson to try to get on to the debate stage, the third-party candidates are missing, but they’ll still be a factor in the opinion polls, with the combined numbers for Johnson and the Greens’ Jill Stein often exceeding the gap between Clinton and Trump.

Clinton, meanwhile, partly walked back her description of an unknown number of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” but not before the Trump fans had adopted the name as a strange badge of honour. The campaign leapt on her error with this ad:

So with six more weeks to go, the focus remains on key battleground states. On current ad spending Clinton owns the airways – she’s set to spend 50 times more than her opponent in Florida alone over what remains of the campaign – but Trump may be winning the battle online.

The two vice-presidential candidates will face off next Tuesday, before Trump and Clinton meet again on October 9 in St Louis, and then for the third and final time 10 days later in – perhaps appropriately – Las Vegas.

FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one is easily the most fascinating yet. He’ll be writing here regularly about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies until election day in November.