By Todd Eberly
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
The most watched debate in 2008 wasn’t between John McCain and Barack Obama. It was the vice presidential showdown between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin that attracted all of the attention.
By the time of that debate, Palin’s qualification and preparedness for office had been pilloried by the press and late night comics and people tuned into the debate expecting to see a disaster of epic proportions. Instead, Palin surprised her critics and even her proponents by delivering a competent performance against the more experienced Biden.
How did Palin pull it off? Simple — weeks of intense preparation and mock debates.
The folks who tuned into the debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton finally got to see the Palin v. Biden debate they had been expecting in 2008.
From the very first question, it was clear that Trump had done little to no preparation for this debate. And yet, it was the first 20 minutes or so where Trump did best.
In a clear pitch to working class voters, Trump hammered away at trade agreements and the exodus of American manufacturing to other countries. He hung the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) around Clinton’s next.
But even in the midst of his strongest performance he was weak. He couldn’t explain how he would keep jobs from leaving the U.S. He couldn’t explain just how he would punish companies that left. And, he had no answer to Clinton’s correct observation that what Trump was proposing was nothing short of a trade war — which threatens the global economy.
After those initial exchanges, Trump’s lack of preparedness became ever more clear. In response to Clinton’s criticism that Trump’s tax plan would add $5.3 trillion to the debt, Trump’s response was “Your regulations are a disaster, and you’re going to increase regulations all over the place.” Perhaps an example would’ve helped?
Easily goaded by Clinton
On exchange after exchange, Trump could muster little more than broad generalities in response to Clinton. Perhaps worse for Trump is how easily he was goaded by Clinton. Merely a mention of his tax returns and the possibility that he wasn’t as wealthy as he claimed sent Trump on an unnecessary and unhelpful tangent about the combined values of his buildings and total value of his outstanding loans.
Whereas Clinton was able to goad Trump with her responses, Trump was typically unable to muster much more than “it’s a disaster” when he responded to Clinton’s comments.
Perhaps the most damaging segment of the debate was when Clinton made reference to the many small businesses who claim that Trump refused to pay them for services or that Trump used his power to force them to accept greatly reduced payments. The best defense Trump could muster was “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work…”
Trump’s biggest supporters are white, working class voters — many of whom live paycheck to paycheck — and I think he needed a better response. It apparently did not occur to say that in his business he has created thousands of jobs. It didn’t occur to him, because he never prepared for the debate.
By the final 30 minutes, Trump was clearly tired and frustrated and mostly unfocused. Clinton’s performance was far from perfect, but her mistakes were overshadowed by Trump’s.
Late in the 2008 election cycle, a question was raised regarding Barack Obama’s experience and qualifications to be president. One of Obama’s proponents responded that Obama’s successful campaign for the nomination was evidence of his qualifications.
Monday night, on a debate stage with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump proved that a successful campaign for a party’s nomination is not sufficient proof of experience or qualifications. Many Republicans office holders have justified their support for Trump by arguing that he would be a better president than Clinton. Last night’s debate revealed that to be a hollow argument.
How will the debate impact the race? It’s hard to say. They entered the race in a virtual tie and it will take about a week to truly see any debate impact.
It is unlikely that the debate will have any effect on the folks who already support Trump, but unlike more recent elections there are many more undecided voters this year. By the time the debates came around in 2012, only 5-7% of the electorate were still up for grabs. Today, roughly 15% of voters are undecided. Trump gave them little reason to choose him.
Todd Eberly is associate professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.