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Debate loser Trump may yet surprise

By most objective measures, the Republican U.S. presidential nominee, business mogul Donald J. Trump, fared poorly in his first debate against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.  If history is any guide, however, it will not matter.

Since the first televised American presidential debate, between Vice-President Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960, debates have rarely altered the trajectory of an election campaign. When it has happened, it was usually because one candidate committed an irreparable error.  More often, debates are remembered for memorable quips or singular defining moments, not for detailed discussions of policies or platforms.

The good news for Trump is that the Monday night encounter, at Hofstra University in New York, produced no major misstatements or memorable gaffes. Clinton, a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, demonstrated a detailed grasp of complex policy issues. But in the last two decades, the candidate showing a firmer grasp of the issues has often been judged the loser of the debate, which is a televised forum that prizes audience connection and empathy more than a solid command of the facts.

In 2012, for example, President Barack Obama is widely considered to have lost his first and most important encounter with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, with Obama turning in a performance widely panned as petulant and disengaged. Obama went on to beat Romney in the November election.

Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 gave a widely panned performance against Democratic Senator John Kerry, who eviscerated the incumbent over the decision to go to war in Iraq.  Bush was considered to have lost all three debates against Kerry, but handily won re-election.  Bush was seen as easier to relate to than Kerry, who appeared aloof.

Likewise, in 2000, Bush was generally considered less informed, and less prepared, than the Democratic nominee, then-Vice President Al Gore.  Gore was judged the winner of his first debate against Bush -- but Gore was widely criticized for an overbearing performance, including audible sighs and rude smirks that reinforced the public's dislike of him.

Debates can have more of an impact during primary campaigns, when candidates are less well known and are struggling to break out from a crowded field.  In crowded, multi-candidate primary debates, a misstatement or gaffe can be the death knell for an unknown candidate.


This year, Florida Senator Marco Rubio was considered a heavy favorite for the Republican nomination until he had a debate meltdown in New Hampshire before that state's crucial first primary.  Rubio robotically repeated the same rehearsed sentence three times within a few minutes, prompting a sharp rebuke from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  Rubio lost the primary and never recovered.

Similarly, in 2012, then-Governor Rick Perry of Texas, considered a leading candidate for the Republicans, was devastated by an agonizing debate moment when he mentioned three federal agencies he would abolish as president -- and then forgot the name of third agency on his hit list.  After several awkward seconds trying to recall the name Perry shrugged and said, "I can't," meaning he could not remember.  Then he added, "Oops," the phrase that ended his campaign.

Trump's debate performance Monday night against Clinton was widely criticized, even by some Republicans. Trump scored some points in the opening half hour, including his attacks on Clinton for reversing her position on the giant Asian trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But he spent much of the 90-minute debate on the defensive, forced to respond to Clinton's repeated barbs on his failure to release his tax returns, his treatment of small business vendors, his insensitive comments on racial issues and his supposedly sexist references to a former beauty pageant contestant.

The debate was expected to draw as many as 100 million viewers, which would make it one of the most watched political events in American history -- and an unprecedented chance for the two candidates to make their cases before the widest audience possible.

But Trump can take solace from the fact that he made no serious mistakes or misstatements -- no "oops" moment like Perry, and no robotic freeze like Rubio.  And, if history is any guide, a single bad debate performance seems unlikely to change the contours of a race in which Trump is virtually tied with Clinton in national polls, and level or slightly ahead in a handful of crucial "swing" states, including Ohio, Florida and North Carolina.


New polls in a week's time may determine whether the debate changed any minds.  But in past elections, movements in surveys following debates have been slight. If anything, partisans may begin to coalesce around their candidates -- in this case Republicans wary of Trump may come to his side after watching his performance, while Democrats wary of endorsing Clinton will likely now become supporters after her strong showing.

Past debates have allowed presidential contenders to put to rest issues that may have been nagging at voters. For example, in 1980 the big concern was whether the Republican Ronald Reagan was too conservative to be president; he dispelled those doubts by his presidential appearance standing next to the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Similarly, when questions were raised in 1984 about Reagan's age and stamina -- he was running for reelection at age 73 -- he put those doubts to rest with a joke, promising not to make an issue "of my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Some two-thirds of American voters still have doubts about Trump's qualifications for the presidency, while almost as many have questions about Clinton's trustworthiness because of lingering scandals like her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.  The verdict is still out, but it seems likely that neither candidate did much to address those concerns.

The stakes for the second presidential debate on Oct. 9 are now much higher.  Trump, for his part, is promising to "hit her harder" next time, and has said he may bring up the sensitive topic of former President Bill Clinton's impeachment and infidelities.

But he may have missed his best moment.  Again, with history as a guide, the second and third presidential debates typically have far fewer viewers, and even less impact, than the first encounter.  Early voting has already begun in some states. Partisan positions are becoming locked in.  And the polls at the start of October are typically the best predictor of the outcome of the contest in November.

Of course, this is no ordinary election year. Voters around the world are showing their disenchantment with establishment politics, as evidenced in the United Kingdom earlier this year with the surprise "Brexit" vote to leave the European Union.  Past precedents may be broken.

Demographics, America's electoral college system and Obama's late surge in popularity all combine to suggest a Clinton victory in November.  But Trump has defied the odds, and precedent, to come as far as he has.  He may have one more surprise left.


Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent and foreign editor, is the director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.



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