After two weeks of losing ground in key battleground states, Hillary Clinton needed a good showing at last night’s first head-to-head presidential debate with Donald Trump. She did better than that. She achieved a clear win. A CNN/ORC poll taken shortly after the debate gave Clinton victory by a 62 to 27 percent margin.
The victory was more decisive than the morning highlight reels show. As I watched the debate, switching between PBS and MSNBC, I was struck by how much more energized Clinton was than in her recent campaign stops.
Clinton’s answers to the questions posed by moderator Lester Holt of NBC were not only more detailed than Trump’s. Throughout the evening they grew stronger. By contrast, Trump seemed to lose energy and focus as the debate reached its final half hour.
Trump started off strong. Gone was the makeup that gives him an orange look. Gone was the red power tie he so often wears. He presented himself, at first, as a subdued, all-business Donald Trump and spoke accordingly. His criticism of the trade agreements America has made in recent decades was firm, and Clinton struggled to rebut it.
But after the questions turned to the economy, Trump began to stumble—and with every attempt to pick himself up, fell deeper into his own trap. When he was asked about an architect he had not paid for work on one of his projects, Trump replied, “Maybe he didn’t do a good job.” When asked about being glad that the housing crisis gave him a chance to turn a profit, Trump answered, “That’s called business.”
On race and gender issues, Trump was even more defiant, resorting to the kind of fear-mongering, dog-whistle rhetoric that has rightly gotten him into trouble throughout his campaign. When confronted about his role in the birther controversy suggesting that President Obama was not born on American soil, Trump claimed that his efforts were a public service, not a “racist lie,” as Clinton charged. He made the president produce his birth certificate, Trump insisted, and he was proud of it. Trump also stood by his most notorious insults to women; of comedian Rosie O’Donnell, whom he has called a “fat pig,” he said, “I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.” (Trump then turned around and pleaded, in response to the millions the Clinton campaign has spent on campaign ads against him, “It’s not nice. And I don’t deserve that.”)
Clinton was far from pitch perfect, but when it came to the issues she cares about, she was clear. She talked about raising the minimum wage and providing debt-free education in state colleges and universities to expand access for poor and middle-class families. She explained the Iran nuclear deal in detail, making it clear, without being overly technical, how the deal had helped avoid a Middle East war.
Where Clinton decisively prevailed was in an area that is not usually her strength: audience appeal. Ever since the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, how a candidate looks and acts has been crucial in winning over voters. Trump spent much of the debate interrupting Clinton or talking over her—enough for it to become clear that he is a natural bully in dealing with women. But Clinton never backed off or allowed herself to be intimidated by Trump.
Watching the debate on a split screen put the two candidates’ demeanor in stark contrast. In Trump’s case, viewers observed a candidate sniffling and anxiously sipping water throughout. The opposite was true for Clinton. She stood still at her lectern when Trump was talking, looking serious, sometimes amused, and increasingly confident.
Toward the end of the debate, Trump was asked by Lester Holt to explain his remark that Clinton did not have a presidential “look.” Trump said that he meant Clinton lacked stamina. She countered by reciting her travels as secretary of state, but she didn’t have to offer up her record at this point. Clinton’s poise throughout the evening had already settled the stamina question. The diffident candidate we saw at the Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York earlier this month was nowhere to be seen.
Nicolaus Mills is chair of the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.