Every media analyst and historian in America believes that Monday night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will turn out to be the most-watched debate in American history, with close to 100 million people tuning in over its 90 minutes. Given that President Barack Obama won a second term in 2012 with about 65 million votes, the Clinton campaign is probably wiping its brow in relief right now. She won the debate.
She won the debate in the eyes of most people watching, and she won the debate in the areas she needed in order to improve her chances of victory. However, more important than Clinton's winning is that Trump actually lost, which sets the country up for a fascinating set of takeaways.
Clinton went into the debate in pretty bad shape by most electoral measures. Her national lead was rebounding to the high 40s and 50s, but her Electoral College lead, by recent polls in Colorado and Pennsylvania, was falling into margin-of-error range. She needed to give Americans a reason to vote for her and not just against Trump. Donald Trump was surging in most polls heading into the debate, and all he needed to do was make sure he passed the "presidential test" of standing next to Clinton for 90 minutes and not coming across like a blathering idiot. She did her job. He did not.
The first 20 minutes of the debate were rough. Trump interrupted Clinton consistently and was aggressive on almost every measure, and managed to mention Ohio, Michigan and Americans losing jobs abroad much better than Clinton did. But he ran out of gas after the first 30 minutes. From then on, Trump’s answers to almost every other topic, from Birtherism (saying essentially, “Black people wanted me to force Obama to show his birth certificate”) to his nonsensical monologue at the end about how his temperament is his strong suit, did him in.
Clinton supporters are enthusiastic about this performance, and it gives them hope. Trump’s surrogates were left trying to explain how anything he did made sense. The biggest indicator that even the Trump campaign thought he lost? The candidate and most of his surrogates blew off interviews with almost every channel but Fox (I literally heard a Rudy Giuliani staffer say as much), and Trump didn’t even attend his campaign postdebate party, instead choosing to lick his wounds back in New York City.
The spin room is dead. Long live the spin cycle. The spin room of a presidential debate is the large open area near the press tables that is filled after a debate with surrogates whose job it is to justify and “spin” their candidate’s performance. The thing is, that’s old-school. The public knows how they feel about the debates through social media about 20-30 minutes in, and the spin room has effectively been replaced by the “spin cycle” of memes, GIFs and tweets that will actually drive news coverage throughout the day.
By every measure, Trump lost on social media. Whether it was the memes about his bizarre sniffling through the debate or him being fact-checked by his own tweets, it was a disaster for him. A Trump loss doesn’t automatically translate to a Clinton win, but in this case, it did.
The Democratic National Committee sent out about seven emails during the debate, calling Trump out on his lies and highlighting Clinton’s message. The Republican National Committee sent out one. The Clinton campaign was flooding the internet with clips showing video of Trump contradicting himself and Clinton surrogates sharing her story. The Trump campaign was almost silent. Clinton won the night with her “Shimmy Shimmy” move (during one of Trump’s rants), which has already gone viral and will likely be remixed over an ODB beat before lunch.
Social media is a much stronger indicator of how the public feels about a debate than the television pundits, many of whom (like voters) are already set in their opinions and thus don’t reflect any ups and downs of enthusiasm.
It has become a tried-and-true tradition to attack the moderators of debates, regardless of which candidate you support, and Monday night was no different. In the first 20 minutes of the debate, when Trump was laying body blows and Clinton was on the ropes, it’s fair to critique NBC’s Lester Holt for not stopping the interruptions. However, that is a minor note, and ultimately, a candidate like Clinton has to know that Trump is going to come out in attack mode.
On the more important moderator responsibility of keeping the candidates truthful, Holt did an adequate job. When a candidate lied—and let’s just be honest; it was mostly Trump doing the lying—Holt remained firm, would reask the same question over and over again, and insisted on getting an answer. When Donald Trump advocated "stop and frisk," Holt repeated over and over that the practice was ruled unconstitutional.
Could he have been more aggressive as a moderator? Possibly. Did both Clinton and Trump talk over, around and through Holt several times in the night? Yes. Did Holt’s own moderating substantively influence the outcome of the debate in some way that favored one candidate or another or took away from the viewer’s experiences? Not at all. In an election year like this, I’ll consider that to be a good job.
Most research shows that one debate is not going to change the entire direction of a presidential campaign. All you have to do is look at President Obama’s poor performance in the first 2012 debate. Democrats freaked out, Republicans suddenly fell in love with Romney and the polls nationally shifted, but nothing was happening to the states. Within a week, they were back to normal, and the same will likely occur in this campaign postdebate.
The question is: What is normal? Was Trump really just gaining momentum that is going to carry him into the White House, or was it a weeklong blip that was a result of poor Clinton choices and Trump avoiding all media but friendly Fox? When the first statewide postdebate polls come out Friday, we’ll have a better idea if Clinton's shining new vision was enough to stop Trump's message of a hellish black dystopia.
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Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.