Commentary on the first debate of US presidential election candidates

The race for the presidency has tightened. Hillary Clinton is still projected to win, and polls have not fully absorbed how the first presidential debate have influenced people’s minds. Nevertheless, what was looking like a runaway victory at the beginning of summer is now looking like a tougher battle.

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Real Clear Politics’ projection of the Electoral College predicts that Secretary Clinton would receive 292 votes if the election were held today. That would give her a solid win. The betting odds on this happening are now settling around 74%. The fly in this pie is the growing number of toss-up states that are too close to call, or had shifted slightly in favor of Mr. Trump. As we forecast earlier this year, the lasting image of this election is Secretary Clinton, with her massive entourage of money and support, methodically moving toward election day, while Mr. Trump jumps forward or flat on his face with his high-risk, high-reward strategy of provoking comments aimed at disrupting the status quo.

Last Monday, the two candidates faced off in their first debate (the largest audience in debate history tuned in). It is hard to find an honest, objective commentary about who won the debate. The first post-debate polls show that Hillary gained support (but how much and for how long are in dispute). She increased her lead in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and narrowed her deficit in Ohio and North Carolina.

The view here is that Mr. Trump made four potentially major mistakes. First, he said he was “smart” to reduce his tax rate to zero (he still declines to release his tax returns: he would be the first candidate since Richard Nixon not to do so). Second, his comment that it was good “business” to look forward to waves of mortgage foreclosure during the 2007 crisis could hurt him among his white, lower middle-class voters who faced foreclosure. Third, his explanation that he did not pay the entire contractually-agreed amount to suppliers because national laws allowed him to do so could be used to accuse him of abusing less powerful local businesses. Finally, he implied that the beauty pageant contestant he allegedly called a pig and “Miss Housekeeper” (she is Latino) deserved it, and, when defending himself after the debate, imputed (without evidence) she appeared in a sex tape. This did not help him overcome the charge that he treats women poorly.
Secretary Clinton made no obvious mistakes, but she also had no memorable lines or policy proposals. Her biggest political weakness is her use, as Secretary of State, of a private email server for government business. She handled the controversy deftly in the debate: she said it was a mistake, and that she should not have done it. Despite Mr. Trump’s attempt to continue on the subject, her answer seemed to deflate interest in the topic. Yet, she did not conjure a memorable moment of her own. Her description of Mr. Trump’s economic plan as “trumped up, trickle down” seems fated to disappear quickly. And she did not effectively respond to his repeated charge that she had very little to show for her thirty years in high politics.

As Secretary Clinton’s famous husband has said, approximately 90% of Americans who will vote knew for which party they would vote before any candidate even announced. This election will come down to two things: how many of those loyal voters each candidate can persuade to vote and how the other 10% will split. The Republican Party seems to have reluctantly formed around Mr. Trump; his remaining challenge is to create enough positive controversy to attract the 10% without generating a greater amount of negative controversy that would cause the party faithful to stay home. Secretary Clinton must generate more enthusiasm for the thought of her as president. Judging by their reactions to the first debate, both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton seem to realize they missed an opportunity. Given the current polls, that result seems to be helping Secretary Clinton more.

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