Donald Trump has room to grow after producing an uneven performance in the most-hyped presidential debate in recent memory. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, successfully baited her Republican rival down a series of dead-end rhetorical paths, a debate strategy that Democratic and Republican consultants believe worked well for her.
Going into Monday night’s first debate, Trump’s campaign successfully lowered expectations for their candidate. While reporters chronicled Clinton’s resume of 30-plus primary debates, Trump took to labeling the Commission on Presidential Debates a “phony system.”
Overall, it was effective at lowering the bar for Trump, according to Brett O'Donnell, a GOP consultant. But the historic 90-minute contest, hosted by Hofstra University in New York, was a tale of two halves.
“I thought he was stronger in the first half than she was, and then he got on the defensive too much in the second half and missed openings to really go after her and turn the debate in his direction,” O’Donnell, who has done presidential campaign debate preparation for George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, told C&E.
Trump was good on trade in the first half and painted Clinton as a career politician, but he got sucked in by Clinton in the latter half of the debate.
“It really got down in the mud,” said O’Donnell, “and he ended up taking the bait on every attack that either Lester, or Clinton threw his way — his apartment buildings, his taxes, on Iraq. He spent a long time explaining why he wasn’t for the war in a convoluted explanation that no one could follow.”
Still, Trump’s language and messaging was effective at points. “He is speaking the language of middle America and she is speaking the language of inside-the-Beltway elites,” said O’Donnell.
Ultimately, presidential debates are about which candidate more effecitively plays offense, according to O'Donnell, who sees that as the biggest task for Trump advisers ahead of his next faceoff with Clinton on Oct. 9: “If they can convince him to get on offense he has much more room to grow in my opinion.”
Democrats by and large saw Monday night as a solid win for Clinton. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe called it a missed opportunity for Trump.
“Somebody looking at this debate who’s not sure if they’re going to vote for Trump or Clinton, I don’t think Trump gave them anything,” Plouffe said Monday on NBC. “I think this was a very lopsided win for Hillary Clinton.”
Plouffe labeled Trump “almost unhinged and unmoored,” at points during the debate, which was exactly what Clinton’s camp was aiming for: Make him seem like he doesn’t have the temperament for the presidency.
From relitigating his position on U.S. involvement in NATO to defending his stance on the birther issue, Trump found himself bogged down in explanation after explanation — exchanges that largely favored Clinton. Trump even clashed with Clinton over her campaign's TV ad spending.
The Clinton campaign has long placed a premium on finding ways to rattle Trump. In August, it was reported that Tony Schwartz, the co-author of “Art of the Deal” was in contact with the Clinton campaign.
Carrie Giddins Pergram, a Democratic communications consultant, said that strategy allowed Clinton to successfully create a contrast with Trump.
“Trump's inability to control his urges to always be first, to be right, to be the loudest in the room, was a strong contrast to Secretary Clinton's ability to listen, be thoughtful, and give answers to the questions asked,” she said. “Trump was unable to exploit many of Clinton's known weaknesses tonight. It will be interesting to see how he pivots in the next debate.”