Perhaps you can’t wing your way to the White House.
At the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, authenticity proved to be no substitution for preparation. Strong words faded in the face of solid experience. And, in a campaign that has seen norms shattered, there was something comforting about at least one candidate behaving in expected ways — and speaking in coherent, complete sentences.
The meeting came at a crucial moment, with six weeks before Election Day. The night’s potential impact had the senior advisers to both campaigns losing sleep in recent days. Only Clinton’s should feel comfortable as they crawl under the covers. What remained unclear is whether either candidate had changed voters’ minds or given them permission to firmly link up with a candidate they already leaned toward. Even Trump admitted Clinton is a governing-focused nerd, and Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries was rooted in his eagerness to buck traditional norms for political speech.
The Republican nominee began the debate on the Hofstra University campus in Hempstead, N.Y., as disciplined a debater as he has been, delivering on-message lines about being a candidate who can change Washington. But during the course of almost two hours, the billionaire’s self-control faltered. “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong,” he sputtered into the microphone as his hands firmly gripped the lectern. Confronted with his misstatements on the Iraq War and President Obama’s birthplace, his refusal to release his tax returns and his embrace of a controversial policing practice, all he could do was grimace and shake his head.
Trump took the stage with a single goal: to leave voters more convinced he could handle the role of President. But more familiar in the role of the one doing the name-calling and lobbing the attacks, Trump found himself on the defensive before a television audience rivaling the Super Bowl.
Clinton’s performance was far from a knockout, and it was just one of three times this pair will meet under such intense scrutiny. But it was enough to calm Democrats’ nervous jitters about tightening polls and fewer paths for them to reach the required 270 electoral votes the next President will need. Even so, it was the victory she and her team needed to boost morale and to justify the time she’s been off the campaign trail to prepare and juice fundraising.
There were indications that Trump seemed to realize his performance didn’t pass muster. He became the first presidential nominee in memory to try to spin reporters after his own debate. He also skipped a planned stop at a rally near the hall, instead leaving to return to his home in Manhattan. At one point he complained he had been given a defective microphone.
Already there are signs that the next meeting, on Oct. 9 at the Washington University in St. Louis, will be even more combative — a risk for both. After the debate, Trump and allies suggested he was holding back from attacking Clinton personally on her husband’s infidelity out of respect for Chelsea Clinton, who was in the audience. Clinton aides, who had advised the candidate to refrain from interrupting Trump too frequently on stage, said she may now be more comfortable in the next contest.
For a first foray, it was clear they were coming at the race from completely different vantages. As Trump listed the wrongs in the country, Clinton highlighted her policy proposals to fix them. Both at times were hyperbolic. Trump painted a far darker picture of the country than independent figures suggest and Clinton was promising a far rosier solution than most experts believe possible. But it was a dichotomy that each side is suggesting will be the calling card for the balance of the campaign.
The evening opened predictably enough. Trump effectively argued that he would dismantle Washington’s rigged system, and Clinton delivered largely prepared lines for the television cameras. But as the debate dragged on, Clinton’s skills in the setting shone through, as did Trump’s prickly temperament.
Clinton's goal was to outlast her bombastic rival, who’d come armed with vague promises — that his personality could overpower government institutions with inertia unseen in the private sector, and a Congress with its own ideas for preserving the status quo for constituents back home. At times, it was as though they were participating in separate, parallel made-for-TV events rooted in different facts.
Clinton projected confidence and precision, hallmarks of a campaign rooted in preparation. Trump’s team boasted that he was eschewing traditional debate prep in favor of the risky play of letting the real Trump arrive fresh and unrehearsed. At times, it showed in ways that left Republican apologists in the debate hall groaning and his critics giddy.
“We assumed he would prepare. He did not. We assumed we would maintain his composure. He could not,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters. “He became unhinged."
Clinton was prepared for such a non-traditional debating partner and had her well-planned barbs ready for him. She questioned his personal wealth and policy chops. Trump struggled to respond with off-the-cuff retorts that left him looking like the newcomer to national politics—which he is. Her critics say Clinton is shrewd and calculating; her boosters call it being ready.
For more than 90 minutes, Clinton focused on constituencies she needs if she is to reassemble the coalition that Barack Obama used to power his way to victory twice. Trump seemed determined to intentionally anger them. She was respectful about concerns of racism among African Americans; Trump called for unconstitutional law-enforcement tactics in their neighborhoods. Clinton discussed her plan to tax the ultra-wealthy to help pay for childcare and college; Trump pushed tax cuts for billionaires like himself and boasted that dodging taxes demonstrated he was “smart.” Clinton talked about helping women in the workplace; Trump doubled-down on harsh language about them, including Clinton herself. “She doesn't have the look. She doesn't have the stamina. I said she doesn't have the stamina. And I don't believe she does have the stamina to be President of this country. You need tremendous stamina,” Trump said as the first female nominee of a major party stood a few feet away.
Clinton took it in stride. “Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, release of dissidents and opening of new opportunities and nations around the world — or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee — he can talk to me about stamina,” she said, closing with a nod to her testimony about the death of four Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The hearing failed to bury her political ambitions and left her looking stronger than when she began.
That sound you heard? Female voters leaning more firmly toward Clinton’s camp as she reminded the audience that he also called women pigs, slobs and decried maternity.
“I didn't say that,” Trump said as he hunched over his podium, being forced to hear echoes of his days before he became a candidate. Gone was the glee from his Republican primary fight, when he crowed about his manhood and called his rivals names. The best he could do was defend a previous statement about women who were mean to him as entertainment.
“Somebody who's been very vicious to me, Rosie O'Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her,” Trump said of his feud with the comedienne.
Undeterred, Clinton kept going forward, citing Trump’s other offensive comments that were the basis of a question that sparked a very public, one-sided spat with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly who used similar fodder a year ago at the first debate. Trump seemed to yield to Clinton’s insistence that Trump did, in fact, call women horrible names.
For Clinton’s top advisers, it was as good as they could have hoped for. Trump walked into their traps. Clinton delivered her zingers with aplomb (“trumped-up trickle down” was one she deployed repeatedly) and made no unforced errors. A spontaneous “whoo!” was a made-for-GIF moment that her digital team saw as golden for the coming weeks.
Trump was unbowed, even as he seemed incapable of landing a punch. He continued to hammer Clinton on her private email (she apologized, in one of the most concise moments of contrition yet), foreign policy (he wrongly claimed she has been fighting ISIS her whole life) and continued to insist, without evidence, that he was the lone candidate on the stage who opposed going to war with Iraq in 2003. “That is a mainstream media nonsense,” Trump interrupted when asked about Iraq. “The record shows otherwise,” moderator Lester Holt replied in a moment where he didn’t let incontrovertible evidence get discarded.
At another point, Clinton’s assertion that Russians are working to undercut American democracy was met with a shrug of indifference from Trump. Trump said it could be Russia, China or another country. “It also could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” Trump said.
The debate will do little to upset the status quo. Clinton remains ahead in the race for money, and her on-the-ground organization in the states is far superior to Trump’s efforts. Monday night’s results wouldn’t change that on its own. The clear win from Clinton is set to calm Democrats’ worry about her standing, especially in crucial states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Virginia. Even so, hurdles remain.
Realizing his evening wasn’t going well, Trump tried to turn his comments toward his base of supporters. “I’ve been all over the place. You decided to stay home, and that's OK,” Trump said in a moment that spoke to his backers’ suspicions about Clinton’s health.
Clinton didn’t take the bait. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did,” she said, as the audience broke with their instructions to refrain from applause. “And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be President, and I think that's a good thing.”
The odds are good Trump will try to borrow some of her approach next time.
— Sam Frizell contributed to this report from Hempstead, N.Y.