In a near unanimity, the media chorus immediately declared it: Hillary Clinton knocked it out of the park. It’s not a surprising assessment. And they aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t the audience that matters.
According to CNN’s David Gergen, anyway you looked at it, Clinton was the clear winner in the first of three presidential debates against Donald Trump. “By all traditional standards of debate, Mrs. Clinton crushed.”
Mika Brzezinski, who along with her co-host Joe Scarborough have been accused of being too chummy with Trump, admitted, “I think, probably, we all think Hillary won.”
And on and on.
This isn’t just a liberal media thing — or even a liberal thing. Even many Republican politicos seemed to think Trump’s debate performance should come with disaster relief funding.
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, like me, a Republican not supporting Trump, said “I’m not positive Hillary actually won the debate. But I’m sure Trump lost it. He choked.”
National Review’s momentary maybe-candidate David French said it may have been “the most lopsided debate I’ve ever seen.”
Even Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group of Pennsylvania undecided voters gave Clinton the clear win.
Why? There was the off-putting, near-incessant interrupting. There were the odd, unstoppable sniffles.
Trump couldn’t help himself from meandering off onto ill-advised tangents on everything from Sean Hannity to Rosie O’Donnell, nor could he resist taking juvenile and boorish potshots at Clinton that were the political equivalent of “I know you are but what am I?”
Then there were the missed opportunities: He barely mentioned her email scandal, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation or the fact that until very recently she was under FBI investigation. He didn’t talk about immigration, for God’s sake. There were also unforced errors, defending a discrimination lawsuit by saying he wasn’t the only person sued and possibly admitting he hasn’t paid any federal income tax.
For maybe 80 percent of the electorate watching Monday night, all this adds up to a bad night. But it’s a much smaller segment that Trump needed to impress last night, and I’m betting he did.
Undecideds are undecided for a reason. They do not like either of these candidates — I hear you — and they’re looking for a reason to move to one over the other. Both Trump and Clinton’s moral and professional indiscretions are well-known and neither do well when it comes to trust.
To move undecideds, Trump needed to make Clinton look like a politician who doesn’t get it, who doesn’t get you. Over and over again, Trump hammered this point Monday night, arguing she’s had 30 years in politics and little to show for it. He called her a “typical politician,” said she was “all talk, no action,” and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, painted her as an elite, out-of-touch Washington insider.
As always-insightful Salena Zito chronicles in two recent posts, this is a winning riff for Trump.
In places like East Liverpool, Ohio, longtime Democratic strongholds, it’s not about racism or Islamophobia, as many in the media like to imagine. It’s — still — the economy, stupid.
As Zito writes, “People here have long voted for Democrats who promised to bring back jobs — Jimmy Carter, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry. They believed when these candidates told them they had their best interests at heart. They believed in Barack Obama so much that they gave him a nearly 2-1 margin victory over Mitt Romney.”
In places like Youngstown, Pa., where, Zito writes, Democrats are more traditional, Clinton may as well be running in a foreign country. “I am a small businessman, a farmer, come from a long line of farmers and coal miners,” a 35-year-old registered Democrat told Zito Monday night. “The policies she talked about tonight ultimately either hurt me or ignore me,” he said of Clinton. He said Trump won the debate.
Trump has done all he can to shore up his base, and it ultimately might not be big enough to win. Moving these fence-riders is key.
The same is true for Clinton. And the best opportunity to move undecideds her way is to convince them Trump’s political ignorance is frightening and disqualifying. And on this one point, she didn’t deliver Monday night.
Trump is a political neophyte in every sense. Time and again he has proved he’d need a basic civics lesson before taking the oath of office. And yet, Clinton argued his vague ideas on their merits, comparing their tax plans and preferring instead to spend time painting him as a sexist, a liar and a fraud.
Those are all the reasons people have already decided not to vote for Trump. For undecideds, his lack of readiness is what will scare them her way. She flicked at this theme a couple times, but not nearly as effectively as she should have.
Clinton unequivocally gave the better performance. But while we’re all abuzz over Trump’s mistakes and outbursts, cut through the noise and you’ll realize only one candidate likely did what he needed to, which is win new voters.
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com
This column originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
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