A record-setting number of viewers tuned in Monday to watch the first presidential debate (the first of three) and saw two candidates come to grips not just with each other but with the perceptions that have formed about them in the public eye.
What they also saw was a debate that was thin on civility and marked by a nasty tone that was enough to make any viewer uncomfortable about how unpleasant the next debates might become.
Trump had a win in the debate at the very least from the standpoint of being on the stage. For several months, the Clinton campaign has painted him as a delusional and dangerous figure too unstable to serve ascommander-in-chief. His very presence on the same stage as Hillary Clinton elevated his credibility with many voters.
As for the debate itself, held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., both candidates did little to dispel their weaknesses but remained true to their personalities and temperaments.
Clinton tried throughout to be disciplined and on her talking points and her well-rehearsed (and, one presumes, focus group-tested) quips and one-liners. She tried consistently to paint Trump as a dangerous and unstable person, repeating many of the same descriptors used in her ads. Her aggressive debate style likely connected with the college-educated voters and her most dedicated constituency — the mainstream media — to whom she repeatedly appealed both before and during the debate to fact-check her opponent.
Trump was far less scripted and consequently less reliant on statistics, but held to his key points in the three segments of the debate. He was more accessible to the average blue-collar voter, the voting group where he is strongest.
While there were substantive issues addressed, including taxes, cyber-security, race relations and nuclear proliferation, much of the time centered on such topics as Trump’s taxes, President Obama’s birth certificate and Trump’s alleged treatment of women. Clinton clearly had the strategy of trying to provoke Trump with barbs and personal attacks. Her rival generally kept his cool, but he was far from perfect, missing several opportunities to exploit Clinton’s weakness on her emails and her record as secretary of state.
Who was more successful? The next few days will give some sense, but the stakes were higher for Clinton as the debate brought the immense challenge of stopping Trump’s momentum. She has publicly expressed her mystification that she is not ahead by a wide margin. And the polls now show that she is no longer even in the lead.
The realclearpolitics.com average for Sept. 26 reported that they were separated by barely two points, and Trump is now tied or in the lead in virtually every swing state.
Part of that major swing is among Catholics. As was noted here several times, Trump has struggled with Catholic voters. In August, a Washington Post-ABC poll showed Donald Trump trailing Hillary Clinton by three points among white Catholics. By way of contrast Mitt Romney lost the overall Catholic vote to Barack Obama 50%-48%, but he won the white Catholic vote by 19 points, 59%-40%. (The poll was slightly skewed because of the massive support enjoyed by Obama among Latino Catholics.)
That has now changed completely. A new Washington Post-ABC poll found a massive turnaround among white Catholic in support of Trump. Trump now leads Clinton, 57%-33%, among white Catholics and marks a 27-point swing. What this means is that Trump is now pulling even with Romney’s numbers in 2012, but it also means that Clinton is polling under Obama’s numbers, which is bad news for the Clinton campaign at a time when it has been struggling to hang on to the lead in the swing states.
If the Catholic vote continues to shift toward Trump, Catholics might hand him the election.
What does this turnaround mean?
For starters, Trump is doing better across the board with U.S. voters, so it is logical that many Catholic voters would be giving him a strong second look. But just as likely is the strategy that has been underway for some weeks with a deliberate outreach to Catholics in general but active Catholics in particular. As was noted last week, the Trump Campaign began by forming a Pro-Life coalition, with its head the well-known Pro-Life leader Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List. It was a belated move, but it started galvanizing a highly energized group already committed to working against Clinton who has pledged herself as an ardent pro-abortion candidate who would rescind the Hyde and Helms Amendments that prohibit tax money for abortion in the United States and globally.
The next major move was the surprising announcement last week that the Trump campaign — again belatedly — was actually being advised by a specific group of 33 Catholic advisers.
The list was an impressive one, including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Tom Monaghan, founder of Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law; former Pennsylvania Sen. And presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Francis Rooney.
While the announcement came after the poll results, it points to an initiative that has been in the works for some time and is now paying dividends.
A few major questions now arise:
- First, has Trump’s momentum been halted or did he do well enough to close the deal?
- Second, can he continue to animate the pro-life and Catholic voter, and more important will they finally trust him enough to work actively on the ground to get out the vote on Election Day? They will work hard to defeat Clinton, but their support has been hesitant because they were reluctant to embrace his promises.
- Third, will Trump change his tactical approach to the next debate?
Clinton was on the attack for most of the debate. It was a good approach, especially as it put Trump in the risky position of looking either weak if he failed to respond or abrasive if he lost his cool. A similarly aggressive stance or even worse a dismissive attitude by Clinton could backfire badly as it still does not solve her biggest issues of trustworthiness, honesty and likeability. She bolstered her credentials for experience in the first debate but it did little to erase her greatest weaknesses with the electorate. In that sense, she may very well win every debate on points but lose the election on image and temperament.
The election stands on a knife’s edge, and in such cases, the smallest events can change things in most unexpected ways. Stay tuned.