by Lanny Davis – 9/29/16
The most famous game-changing debate in U.S. history is well-known: On Sept. 26, 1960, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy clearly bested the incumbent vice president, Richard Nixon, but only among those who were able to compare the two visually on TV. Among radio listeners, at least as the anecdotal evidence that has become historical consensus goes, Nixon won on substantive points.
The results after Monday night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were different: There can be little doubt that Clinton soundly defeated Trump in the debate — both in substance and visually — and by “defeated,” I mean moved more voters in her direction than Trump moved in his direction.
According to the respected Public Policy Polling (PPP), with a national sample of viewers, Clinton bested Trump 51 percent to 40 percent.
The internal data showed that Clinton won among key voter groups and on issues that should determine the November election results. More than three out of five young voters thought the Democratic nominee won, compared to one out of four who favored Trump’s performance. Almost half of younger voters said the debate made them more likely to vote for Clinton, whereas more said they were less likely to vote for Trump (39 percent) than more likely (23 percent). Women saw Clinton as the winner, 54 percent to 36 percent, and so did African-Americans and Latinos, by a whopping 6-1 margin (77 percent to 13 percent).
Even among white voters, which most polls show heavily favor the Republican contender, there was a dead heat between Clinton and Trump — a result that must concern even the most partisan Trump spinners.
Perhaps more significant are the results on how Clinton handled the issues of greatest concern to all voters who watched the debate. On the three key factors affecting votes for president — temperament, preparedness and trust with nuclear weapons — majorities not only found the former secretary of State preferable based on the debate, they also found Trump did not have the temperament, was not prepared, and could not be trusted with
In probably the worst news of all for Trump, the PPP poll found that 56 percent of independent voters surveyed said Clinton has the temperament to be president and 54 percent said Trump did not. That’s a headline alone: After watching the debate, a majority of political independents — those voters most likely to determine the November election — found that Trump does not have the temperament to be president.
My own perspective — full disclosure, I am a strong supporter and longtime friend of Hillary Clinton — is that Clinton decisively won the night and moved undecided voters in her direction mainly based on the same way JFK won his debate in 1960: She left a more positive personal impression on TV and seemed, however you define it, more “presidential.”
Here are three visual impressions I had as I re-watched the debate with the sound turned down:
1) For much of the debate, Clinton smiled and was relaxed, whereas Trump frowned and often seemed tense or just plain grouchy.
2) Clinton was in command of issues, more often specifically on facts and solutions, than Trump, who more often resorted to generalities and rhetoric.
3) Most important, Clinton looked more into the camera and seemed more focused on speaking to the American people and drawing them into what she was saying, whereas the New York businessman more often was looking at Clinton or the moderator, Lester Holt, than into the camera and making effective eye contact with viewers.
Clinton made a better impression than Trump from a purely visual perspective. That, in my view, is why the PPP data and other post-debate polls all showed viewers favored her.
One more negative Trump impression I cannot resist: What was up with him drinking glasses and glasses of water all night? It made him seem nervous and rattled to me.
I’ll bet GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, perhaps watching at home in Florida, was high-fiving and chortling with his friends as he recalled Trump mocking him for his water drinking during their primary. Meanwhile, there was the billionaire Monday night drinking water. And drinking water. And drinking water.
At least Trump didn’t mock Clinton for having smaller hands. Maybe the man does understand certain boundaries. Maybe.
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Lanny Davis is co-founder of the Washington law firm Davis Goldberg Galper PLLC, and Trident DMG, a strategic media firm specializing in crisis management. He served as special counsel to President Clinton from 1996 to 1998 and is a regular columnist for The Hill newspaper. He has been a friend of Hillary Clinton since they were students at Yale Law School together in 1969-70.
To read the column on The Hill, click here.