There was probably no way the first presidential debate could live up to the hype of nearly three-quarters of Americans saying they planned to watch it.
No one lost the debate. No one won the election. There was no iconic moment that will replayed for decades. There small moments that will be remembered for weeks — but not months — such as Hillary Clinton’s shoulder wiggle or Donald Trump’s sniffling.
Further, neither candidate did what they had to do from the broader perspective of sealing the race. Clinton didn’t use the opportunity in front of the largest audience she will ever have to make herself more likable and trustworthy. Trump didn’t use any of the questions to talk in a substantial way about policy.
But in the end, who won? It wasn’t even close: Clinton landed more punches and won more rounds. Here’s how:
Clinton played offense, even if Trump had the ball more often
Use whatever sports analogy suits you, but I prefer a soccer game to describe this debate. Clinton was the team that dominated possession, seeing holes open up and exploiting them one after another. She kept Trump in a position of continuously reacting to her comments instead of the other way around.
Trump may have actually spent more time speaking in the debate, but much of it was on defense. Clinton began in the first few minutes by saying Trump’s father gave him $14 million in loans. He immediately dove into trying to explain himself — instead of talking about, for example, creating jobs.
She continued this pattern until she eventually scored. He talked in detail about not releasing tax returns. He explained his previous defense of birtherism. He finished by defending his disparaging comments about women.
Clinton pivoted away from her weaknesses
Clinton didn’t leave the debate totally unscathed. But even when the discussion quickly went to her most dangerous ground — the e-mails — she was able to admit her mistake and move away from the topic within 20 seconds. She pivoted to attack Trump, and the issue never returned in a substantial way.
Similarly, when Trump criticized President Obama and President Bill Clinton on trade, the GOP nominee accused her of having no plan to create jobs. Clinton responded that she did have a plan. It was in a book.
Finally, when Trump attacked Clinton for taking some time off to prepare for the debate, she turned it into a positive by saying she also is prepared to be president.
Clinton made the debate about Trump
Clinton managed to make a question on a recent cyberattack about Trump’s relationship with the Vladimir Putin. Trump’s responded “no one knows” who hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails, and it could have been done by “someone who weighs 400 pounds who is sitting on a bed.”
Clinton also leveled a line about Trump believing that climate change is a hoax made up by the Chinese to hurt the US economy. Trump denied he said that, but he tweeted it in 2012. It became the most retweeted tweet of the entire debate.
As a result, Trump missed his best opportunities to land a punch
Trump missed so many opportunities to help himself. He continued to play to his base and not even attempt to appeal to hesitant Republicans. He did not admit any regrets on birtherism or past disparaging statements about women. In fact, he doubled down on them.
He could have made news by releasing his tax returns on his website during the debate. He could have had a rhetorical theme to underscore Clinton as the status quo. He could have delivered some heartfelt thoughts about race in America. Instead he gave the same lines he gave to his partisan audiences at rallies.