Trump and Clinton debated each other for the first time last night. Here’s how I score the night.
Clinton won on points. She had more command of the details and the cleaner answers. Trump did a lot of interrupting and he was defensive. If this were a college debate competition, Clinton would be declared the winner. I call that victory on the 2D chess board. But voters don’t care about facts and debating style. They care about how they feel. So let’s talk about that.
For starters, Trump and Clinton both seemed “presidential” enough. That mattered more for Trump. We haven’t seen him off the teleprompter lately. So Trump passed that test by being sufficiently serious.
Clinton looked (to my eyes) as if she was drugged, tired, sick, or generally unhealthy, even though she was mentally alert and spoke well. But her eyes were telling a different story. She had the look of someone whose doctors had engineered 90 minutes of alertness for her just for the event. If she continues with a light campaign schedule, you should assume my observation is valid, and she wasn’t at 100%.
Some will say Clinton outperformed expectations because she didn’t cough, collapse, or die right on stage. That would be true if she also looked healthy in general, and her campaign schedule from here on out is full. We’ll know more this week, based on her schedule.
Clinton’s smile seemed forced, artificial, and frankly creepy. I’m already hearing on Twitter that mentioning a woman’s smile is sexist. I understand the point. But when someone goes full Joker-face and tests the uncanny valley hypothesis at the same time, that’s a bit different from telling a woman to “smile more.” My neighbor Kristina hypothesized that Botox was making her smile look unnatural. Science tells us that when a person’s mouth smiles, but their eyes don’t match the smile, they look disingenuous if not creepy. Botox on your crow’s feet lines around your eyes can give that effect. But whatever the reason, something looked off to me.
To be fair, Trump’s physical appearance won’t win him any votes either. But his makeup looked better than I have seen it (no orange), his haircut was as good as it gets for him, and he was otherwise his normal self that some voters hate and some like.
But the most interesting question has to do with what problem both of them were trying to solve with the debate. Clinton tried to look healthy, and as I mentioned, I don’t think she completely succeeded. But Trump needed to solve exactly one problem: Look less scary. Trump needed to counter Clinton’s successful branding of him as having a bad temperament to the point of being dangerous to the country. Trump accomplished exactly that…by…losing the debate.
Trump was defensive, and debated poorly at points, but he did not look crazy. And pundits noticed that he intentionally avoided using his strongest attacks regarding Bill Clinton’s scandals. In other words, he showed control. He stayed in the presidential zone under pressure. And in so doing, he solved for his only remaining problem. He looked safer.
By , no one will remember what either of them said during the debate. But we will remember how they made us feel.
Clinton won the debate last night. And while she was doing it, Trump won the election. He had one thing to accomplish – being less scary – and he did it.