At 10:39 EST on October 19th, the presidential debate season for the 2016 election came to an awkward, handshake-less close, and I suspect many Americans were simply relieved. Just as the entire election has been, it was a mostly venomous debate, filled with ad hominem attacks that we’ve heard for months. The made-for-Facebook soundbites were there, America’s favorite clips being “nasty woman” and “bad hombres,” and while the discourse had a slightly different emphasis, it still felt all too similar to the previous debates.
That can’t be counted as a successful for underdog Donald Trump. While he may not have performed terribly, he made a couple key blunders, and most pundits were of the opinion that he needed a trouncing victory in the debate, anyway. Perhaps none of these mistakes were more shocking than his remarks about respecting the result of the election.
If Trump had any chance to give himself some legitimacy, it was when moderator Chris Wallace said, “I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, that you will absolutely accept the results of the election?” A vague response about the democratic process would have been adequate, probably. But instead, Trump said that he could not come to a conclusion yet, and would “keep us in suspense.” It was an unprecedented answer, and a risky one, as he decided to not put full faith in democracy. It gave Republicans, like Lindsay Graham, who called the comment “a great disservice to the country,” another excuse to abandon him, and Hillary Clinton more ammunition, who deemed it “horrifying.”
It’s not that Clinton demolished him. She had her faulty moments too, especially when her husband’s infidelity was mentioned. She ignored the question, as she normally does. She had trouble with a question about her proposed Syrian no-fly zone, as well. But Trump failed to attack both times, and let her escape in the moments when she was most uncomfortable. She did a far better job pressing him into difficult spots.
After the “unprepared” closing statements, in which Clinton appeared polished and Trump a bit harried, pollsters began trying to deem a “winner” of the debate season. Most polls showed Clinton as the winner, though it’s hard to say if her victories were by any great margin. In any case, most pundits agree that what’s important is not who won, but that Trump did not win significantly. As his positioning in the polls continues to slip, it was thought he would need a stellar performance on the national stage to truly improve his footing.
A Battleground Tracker poll found that only 4% of voters thought the final debate could change their vote. An additional 23% said that “something big” could make them question their choice, but voters would be hard-pressed to find any “big” victories from the discourse on Wednesday night, especially for Trump. Indeed, besides Ken Bone, I know very, very few undecided voters, and I have trouble imagining that even they could be influenced by the mostly meritless discussion on Wednesday.
Perhaps, then, the biggest story from Wednesday’s debate is not what happened, but what did not happen. Trump had a few nice moments, but Clinton made no terrible mistakes, at least not the sort of catastrophic mistakes that could lose the gap in this election. Trump now has a little over two weeks to move back into realistic contention, and while it is certainly still possible that he does so, he probably did not make the most of his final national appearance.