The answer to the most important question surrounding Monday night’s high-stakes presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — What did the viewers think? — cannot be immediately known, and perhaps won’t be definitively ascertained until Election Day.
However, the answer to another crucial question — How would Clinton and Trump handle their big TV moment? — was crystal-clear by the time the debate ended.
They would do so by bringing their well-known personas and their mutual contempt to the stage at Hofstra University. That proved more than enough to guarantee plenty of charged, and sometimes very personal, exchanges. It was the rare political debate where you weren’t looking at your watch.
Throughout, Trump stayed true to the form that got him there: He was loud, boastful, theatrical, and aggressive in confronting Clinton, showing flashes of temper and sometimes talking over moderator Lester Holt. As he has at his campaign rallies, Trump propounded a dystopic vision of a country falling apart at the seams. “We lose on everything,’’ he said at one point. The split-screen TV images reflected Trump’s growing animation and Clinton’s apparent amusement and disbelief. She struck a generally measured tone, offering detailed responses to questions from Holt, and smiled often as Trump spoke, as if to say to the audience: “Can you believe this guy?’’
At the start of their showdown, Clinton looked relaxed, cheerfully greeting Trump with “How are you, Donald?’’ as they shook hands. After the debate ended, Trump patted Clinton’s back as they left the stage. But in between, there was plenty of animosity crackling between them. Trump contended that Clinton “doesn’t have the stamina’’ to be president. Clinton said of her opponent: “This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs.’’
When Trump criticized the NAFTA trade deal, she retorted: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.’’ When Trump attacked her approach to combating ISIS, claiming “You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do,’’ Clinton replied: “Please, fact-checkers, get to work!’ At one point, Clinton said: “I have a feeling that by the end of the evening I’m going to be blamed for everything,’’ to which Trump replied: “Why not?’’ That prompted an allusion by Clinton to him “saying crazy things.’’ When the famously volatile Trump declared that “I think my strongest asset by far is my temperament,’’ Clinton laughed out loud.
Trump may have been at his most effective when he reminded viewers of his private sector bona fides, noting that his businesses employ many people (“Tens of thousands of people that are unbelievably happy and that love me’’) and telling Clinton that “you are going to regulate businesses out of existence.’’
Amid the back-and-forth, it was worth remembering that a presidential debate is a TV show, albeit a curious one that exists in a genre all its own. Clinton and Trump — those most dissimilar of public figures — were costars of that show Monday night.
Substance matters greatly in any presidential debate, and it should, but the candidates’ success or failure also hinged on something ineffable: whether or not they connected with the audience, especially undecided voters, a task that is is both devilishly difficult and utterly essential if you want to persuade them. That was Job No. 1 for Clinton and Trump, who were appearing before a TV audience that some estimates said could reach 100 million viewers.
With polls showing the race virtually deadlocked, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that one-third of registered voters said the trio of debates would be “extremely or quite important’’ in helping them make up their minds.
Neither Clinton nor Trump is a stranger to the glare of television cameras. Indeed, on their separate decades-long journeys to last night’s debate stage, the medium has played an important role in defining them in the public mind.
Clinton’s memorable TV moments include her appearance on “60 Minutes’’ in 1992 with husband Bill, to discuss allegations that he had had an affair with Gennifer Flowers; her 1998 assertion on NBC’s “Today’’ show that reports of her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy’’ that had long targeted her husband; and her steely, imperturbable demeanor last October while under Republican fire during a nearly 11-hour congressional hearing on the Benghazi attacks. She tends not to wilt under the pressure of the spotlight.
Trump, of course, is drawn to the klieg lights like a moth to a flame. Already well known from decades as a real estate developer/publicity seeker, he became a bona fide TV star as host of NBC’s “The Apprentice’’ and “The Celebrity Apprentice.’’ His catch-phrase (“You’re fired!’’) helped him build up the increasingly vital currency of fame and celebrity. In a sense, he rode the reality-TV wave to the Republican nomination.
In the fevered days leading up to Monday night’s debate, the airwaves were thick with sports analogies, as pundits touted the need for the candidates to “put points on the board’’ by fashioning a “pregame’’ strategy. But sports imagery doesn’t really capture the way public opinion takes shape around TV debates: It usually takes a while after a debate for a broad consensus to develop on who won and who lost.
That’s particularly true with undecided voters. Did they see Clinton’s smiling demeanor as proof of her composure or condescension? Did they see Trump’s bellicosity as evidence that he’s passionate or that he’s unhinged? There are still two debates to go, and with the presidency on the line, we’re likely to face more such questions.