Edward Panetta, professor of communication studies at the University of Georgia, just sent over his grading of last night’s second presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Panetta, the director of the Georgia Debate Union for 27 years. makes a good point – that Trump may have disappointed the crowd (and more importantly, extended the life of the controversy) when he quickly shifted the topic away from the Access Hollywood video. To wit:
Performance of Hillary Clinton:
Throughout the debate, Hillary Clinton made a genuine effort to acknowledge the role the citizen questioners play in the town hall debate. Historically, learning more about the questioners and referring back to previous questioners has played an important role in determining winners.
Early on, she was effective in supporting her campaign’s core narrative that Donald Trump is temperamentally unsuited to be president by linking that claim to the recent disclosures in the tape of Trump making comments about groping women. This answer will be at the heart of the post-debate messaging.
During the debate, Clinton made an effort to provide some policy detail on issues of energy, health care, and tax policy. She was not as effective as she was in the first debate in reaching out to younger voters. For example, she did little to push back against Donald Trump who worked repeatedly to alienate Sanders voters from the Clinton campaign, and she was never able to address climate change.
As was the case in the first debate, she was disciplined and did not regularly interrupt Donald Trump – thus accenting the gendered nature of Donald Trump’s rhetorical style.
Performance of Donald Trump:
Donald Trump performed more effectively than he did in the first debate. While he did a good job speaking to his supporters, there was little he did in this debate to expand the population of voters who will support him.
In a debate, one can answer questions, redefine the questions, or refuse to answer the questions. Last night, Trump was rhetorically prepared to move the discussion off some subjects, onto more comfortable terrain. For example, when questioned about his 3 a.m. tweets about the Miss Universe, Trump moved the discussion to Clinton’s record as Secretary of State and the 3 a.m. attack in Libya.
He also was more effective in assailing Secretary Clinton in this debate. His point about her unwillingness to personally fund the campaign and her friendships with affluent supporters who she will financially benefit will play well with many voters who are fed up with Washington.
And, his conservative supporters were probably pleased by Trump’s combative tone and his efforts to re-litigate the Clinton controversies of the 1990s. During the debate, he made a concerted effort to drive down support from former Sanders voters.
While he did a good job with the lines he had prepared, Trump missed opportunities to drive the point home with evidence. For example, the question about WikiLeaks provided him with an opportunity, but he did not address Sanders voters there.
Donald Trump benefitted from this particular debate format. In the first presidential debate he needed to talk about the same subject for a 10-minute time block. The town hall format had a limited two-minute time block he needed to fill. The shorter time limit allowed him to reaffirm core claims he has made during the campaign but did not place a demand for evidence or detail. For example, he did not provide much detail when addressing health care but was able to prosecute the general case about Obamacare.
He struggled with controlling his visual presence during the debate. He was often hovering over Secretary Clinton’s shoulder when she addressed audience questioners. He also continued the practice of audibly sniffing during the debate. Both of these practices diminished the effectiveness of his presentation.
Assessing the outcome:
If one determined the winner of the debate by who exceeded expectations, there is a case to be made that Donald Trump won the debate. He was better prepared than he was last week, he benefited from the shorter time blocks, and he pushed Secretary Clinton more in this debate.
While Secretary Clinton was ready to debate, the unusual circumstance of preparing to defend both her record and the record of President Clinton seemed to put her on the defensive. She was not as surgical in pushing the agenda of the debate as she was last week. She did a good job of maintaining a professional demeanor throughout the debate and confirmed her detailed understanding of a wide range of domestic and foreign policy matters.
Ironically, Donald Trump was undermined by the new tactic he deployed in this debate – pivoting away from uncomfortable issues. Early in the debate, he needed to fully address the issue of sexual assault raised in the recently disclosed Access Hollywood tape.
Instead of providing a detailed and emotive answer to the question, he quickly pivoted to a discussion of ISIS. His move here ignored the emotional expectations built into the particular topic – many in the audience wanted to know how he felt about the recording.
His answer here was reminiscent of the 1988 Presidential debate in which Michael Dukakis ignored a question about his wife being raped and launched into a discussion of U.S. policy in Nicaragua. Trump’s answer to this question undermined the improvement he made in his overall debating skills. He violated the audience expectation for a personal and emotional response on the most immediate issue of the day while she used the topic to affirm her core campaign theme – that Donald Trump is not fit to serve as commander-in-chief.
Hillary Clinton will not benefit politically from this debate as much as she did from the Hofstra debate. Donald Trump established the overall tone of the debate – it was angry and combative. This tone effectively blunted the sense of optimism Clinton attempted to express when answering the first couple of audience questions in the debate and her references to American values. While she probably came into the debate hoping to leave the public with her positive vision for the country, the combative tone did little to help that effort.