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Commentary

Commentary: Clinton won the debate. So what?

Many political analysts and commentators declared that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton delivered a pitch-perfect performance at the presidential debate on Monday night.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with supporters after her first presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A large majority of viewers agreed. A CNN post-debate poll showed that 62 percent of viewers said Clinton won the debate, versus only 27 percent who said Trump had.

That’s a 35 point spread. Nate Silver of 538 had the stats, as expected: “This was 3rd largest margin ever, after Romney-Obama I and Clinton-Bush 92 townhall.”

Yet Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has defied conventional wisdom throughout this campaign. His base stood by him as he said or suggested things that would have sunk most candidates.

It was clear from the start. He slammed minorities, women and vets. Even gold star parents. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue,” Trump declared, “and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”   

The Republican establishment may have felt faint. But his polls held firm.

Nothing swayed Trump’s supporters. His swagger resonated as he talked about a time in America when women and minorities could not fully complete against white men in the workplace. Trump acknowledged their feelings of lost power and growing anger, even as the nation seemed to have forgotten them.

But at this point in the campaign, presidential nominees are talking to wavering and undecided voters. Not to their base. Some viewers were watching on Monday to see if Trump could look and act like a man capable of serving as president. Others were watching to see if Clinton could finally connect with them.

So this debate, unlike so many others, might just matter.

As Bill Schneider writes today in Reuters, Trump likely reminded many women of their “angry husband.”

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Vox counted that Trump interrupted Clinton 55 times during the debate. Something sure to feel familiar to married – or divorced – women voters. Clinton’s resolute calm might have felt familiar as well. Even even his eye-rolls, Emily Jane Fox wrote in Vanity Faircouldn't phase her

As Emily Crockett and Sarah Frostenson detailed in Vox, some interruptions were just “petulant asides.” but many were “outright lies” – asserting, for example, that he “never said climate change was a Chinese conspiracy.” They noted that almost half the interruptions were in the first half-hour.

It is an axiom of political debates that the first half-hour counts the most. After that many viewers tune out. Experienced analysts noted Trump was most effective during the first 30 minutes. That was when he delivered many of his best shots at Clinton -- particularly on her support of trade agreements, which he insists are responsible for hollowing out the middle class.

But the first half-hour was also when Trump interrupted Clinton roughly 25 times.

Trump later suggested that Clinton lacked the stamina needed to be president. Yet he seemed to flail a bit during last hour of the debate, while she delivered the stronger blows.

Clinton essentially got Trump to admit that he doesn’t pay federal income taxes. Also that he regularly stiffed contractors he had hired. At his big rallies, Trump supporters often cheer these points. But Clinton emphasized the plight of the many small businesses and workers who had been crushed by these tough business tactics.

“Trump seemed oblivious to the harm he was wreaking upon himself,” John Cassidy pointed out in the New Yorker, “Instead, he seemed almost to be reveling in it.”

She had clearly prepared and it paid off. “Hillary Clinton wanted to remind Americans of the Trump they had grown accustomed to disliking,” E.J. Dionne wrote in his Washington Post op-ed column, “the man who demeaned women, minorities and immigrants. Trump helped her out.”

The bar had been set high for Clinton. But study and preparation is what she is known for.

“I think that Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” Clinton said in one telling exchange, “And yes I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”

She is betting that maybe, just maybe, many voters agree.

About the Author

Allison Silver is the executive editor of Opinion at Reuters.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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