Did the First Debate Change Anything?

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican nominee Donald Trump leave the stage after the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican nominee Donald Trump leave the stage after the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. Timothy Clary for AFP/Getty Images

Monday’s much-anticipated first presidential debate came and went and in the hours that have transpired all of us have been awash in memes, analysis and hot takes.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of grading a debate based on narrow parameters, but in the age of Twitter and 500 TV channels, it’s honestly much more complicated than that.

Entering the debate, both candidates needed to achieve their objectives.

For Trump, he first needed to avoid a disaster. He did that – and there was no guarantee that he would.

Second, he needed to cross a “credibility” threshold for the most powerful office in the world. A stature benefit would naturally accrue to his benefit, standing on the stage next to a former U.S Secretary of State and former First Lady, much as it did when he stood next to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. On the question of whether Trump passed the “credibility” threshold, while some may disagree, I think he probably did, but just barely. He certainly could have done better, with more substance and better prep, had he been willing to conduct actual mock debates over a period of weeks working with real professionals.

Her answers were, for the most part, crisp, substantive, strategic, and well-delivered. She was exactly what she was supposed to be.

Conversely, Hillary Clinton faced a different strategic goal. She first needed to stop her slide in the polls, amid real momentum for Trump’s campaign. I believe she did that.

Her answers were, for the most part, crisp, substantive, strategic, and well-delivered. She was exactly what she was supposed to be.

Perhaps most importantly, she spent precious little time playing defense.

She should have been forced, either by the moderator or by Trump himself, to explain her email server and the immunity deal with her former aides who were involved. She should have been forced to answer questions about of selling access at the State Department to Clinton Foundation donors. She should have been forced to fully account for her health history, to put those questions to bed. For the most part, she got off scot-free. 

That was a major failing by the Trump campaign.

Early reports say that the first debate was viewed by 80 million Americans. I doubt the future debates, if they still happen, will have nearly the same audience size.

Trump had only one chance to make a first impression on this scale, and while he wasn’t terrible, the truth is that he wasn’t nearly good enough. 

Trump did not appear to anticipate Hillary’s attacks. 

Apart from the issue of trade, he did not really make her play defense. 

He was far too repetitive, and needlessly spent far too many minutes on defensive subjects (his tax returns, birtherism) while not nearly enough time on his policy proposals, his message, and her weaknesses. 

He was far too repetitive, and needlessly spent far too many minutes on defensive subjects (his tax returns, birtherism) while not nearly enough time on his policy proposals, his message, and her weaknesses.

I do not believe this debate decided the winner of the race.

But I do believe it increased the chance that Hillary wins.

What matters now is whether Trump will bring a different approach, and serious preparation, to the next debate, which is set to be a town hall meeting with questions from undecided and independent voters. 

Trump made Hillary the candidate of the status quo, and that worked at times, but he was far too bullying, too undisciplined, and too unprepared to clearly and decisively win the first debate.

This was a crucial moment for the campaign, and while I do not believe it cost him a chance to win, a missed opportunity does come with a cost.

Matt Mackowiak is syndicated columnist, an Austin-based Republican consultant, and a former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.

Did the First Debate Change Anything?