Judge: Wayne Jocic
Winner: Hillary Clinton
On any conventional debating analysis, Secretary Clinton won the first 2016 Presidential debate. She won by a large margin. She won on every aspect of the debate: the substantive issues, her tactics and her delivery. Her fastidious preparation was vital to this. She had mastered the issues and had helpful statistics and examples at the ready. This was bolstered by her deliberate approach to language, body language and the dynamics of the debate. Her performance steadily improved over the evening. While Mr Trump began well, he quickly declined. His arguments were sometimes incoherent and generally irrelevant, and his tone was too belligerent.
It is helpful to consider separately the speakers’ arguments and tactics, and their delivery.
The debate overall was well planned and well moderated. This afforded wide discussion about economics, race relations and national security. Trump fared reasonably well on economics, where he immediately controlled the direction of the debate: ‘Our jobs are fleeing the country.’ He argued for specific company tax cuts and, seemingly, extra taxes for US companies moving elsewhere. Clinton initially seemed less comfortable and relied too much on rehearsed statistics and sarcastically reciting the phrase ‘trickle-down economics’. Clinton’s early reference to ‘Donald’ backfired when Donald responded ‘Secretary Clinton – Is that OK?’ The populist was pitted against the professional politician. The tipping point in the economic argument, and the debate, was when Trump asserted ‘You have no plan!’ Clinton’s response was swift: ‘I’ve written a book about it.’ From here, Trump was rattled. His arguments took a bizarre turn; he soon asserted Clinton had been fighting ISIS for her entire adult life.
When the debate shifted to America’s diversity, Trump’s argument had little connection with the topic. He largely ignored race relations and instead emphasised law and order. The closest he came to discussing the topic was in his lengthy explanation of his much discussed views on Obama’s birthplace. Clinton’s comments on the race topic were a little lifeless and trite, but they were clear and plausible. That was more than enough to win on this ground.
Finally, the debate turned to national security and international relations. Whatever the wisdom of Clinton’s past actions and future policies, her great expertise in the area was obvious from first to last. Trump avoided the main issues, was mired in discussion about his past beliefs and never rose above assertion. He argued he would be the better President on security matters because he had ‘a much better temperament’ than Clinton. Clinton let this pass with the lighthearted response ‘Woo! OK …’, before soon using the phrase against him in a calculated and devastating attack on his views about Iran. In the last moments of the debate, Trump shifted from temperament to stamina, arguing ‘She doesn’t have the stamina!’ Clinton’s response: when he had travelled to 112 countries and negotiated peace deals and ceasefires, he could talk about stamina.
Clinton overwhelming won on the arguments and made deliberate, efficient use of the debating format. What, then, was the role of the speakers’ manner? It looked at first as though Trump would triumph. His manner was easy and unexpectedly moderated. He was comfortable and energetic before the camera. Clinton started off looking tense and wooden. She eased into the debate, though, talking about her father’s drapery business and laughing and smiling at the right times. She maintained her forensic approach to language without sounding too lawyerly. Clinton’s delivery was good, but hardly charismatic. Yet it was enough to better Trump, whose manner regressed from enthusiasm to aggression to bullying as he spoke over both Clinton and the moderator.
In short, Clinton clearly won the debate on the substantive issues, and reinforced that through her careful debating tactics. Perhaps against the odds, she also won on her delivery.