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Decoding the Presidential Debate

POSTED: September 27, 2016, 8:30 am

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If presidential elections were solely determined on the basis of each candidates’ experience and competence, President George H. Bush would have defeated Bill Clinton in 1992 and a much more seasoned Hillary Clinton would have overcome her challenge from a novice named Barack Obama in 2008. Elections are most often determined by a nation’s temperament and the perceptions of voters. More often than not, those perceptions are not shaped by reality but by a pervasive mood among the electorate. It’s a wind that if a candidate catches it, gives flight to a candidacy that taps into the discontent of voters and turns campaigns into something that more resembles a crusade. We witnessed this in the 1980 presidential election when Ronald Reagan beat the incumbent President Jimmy Carter and corralled white, blue collar Democrats into his corner. Similarly, Barack Obama was able to ride the wave of “change” in upending Senator John McCain, someone with a deep Washington resume as well as the mantle of war hero.

All the world knew that Hillary Clinton was the more seasoned and substantive candidate going into last night’s debate at Hofstra University. That was no secret. She has been the more experienced and competent candidate since the race became a two-person contest after each party’s conventions this summer. No one can seriously look at Donald Trump and claim he is an equivalent. That’s beyond dispute. On his best days Trump is a classic rich guy, relentless, narcissistic and one-dimensional. Still, evaluating these two candidates and their electability on the basis of their competence is misguided and misreads something else that is at work in this election. If substance were the driving force in this election Hillary Clinton would have a +20-point lead. She doesn’t and every time her supporters claim Trump is an idiot, they prove they don’t understand the anti-intellectualism of most Americans and the deep distrust of our government.

While Clinton’s supporters claim victory last night and a news media that is partly responsible for his rise declares that Trump bombed out, that “thing” that is in the air persists. Just weeks ago the scuttlebutt was that Trump would try to wrangle his way out of the debate. Journalists were speculating that he did not want to go toe-to-toe with Clinton for fear of being exposed as a fraud. I never believed that line of thinking. Once committed to the debate, the new chatter was that Trump had erred in agreeing to the debates and that Clinton would walk over him. In the last week there was speculation that he engaged in little debate preparation and would simply wing it. That was also wrong. His performance last night was not aimed at the congregation but directed toward the choir.

If you think these presidential debates is about “winning,’ then you have missed how these charades have played out in recent history. If you are a supporter of Hillary Clinton just know that Donald Trump was not trying to win you over, to convince you to come over to his side. He wasn’t speaking to you. He was speaking to his base and that ‘silent white majority’ in America that hates insider politics, is suspicious of the government and believes that career politicians have given away the shop. These voters aren’t loud and often keep their opinions to themselves and don’t engage in political jousting but make their way to the polls if they feel motivated to do so. And some of these voters are Democrats. Ronald Reagan gave them a reason to vote when he painted Jimmy Carter as a failed bureaucrat overseeing a runaway government.

There was a message Donald Trump delivered to his supporters that they wanted to hear and I would suggest if you support Hillary Clinton you need to back away from the celebrating and take heed.

His first line of attack was on jobs and the export of American jobs beyond our borders. There is an economic recovery but it has been slow and many Americans are outside the skill-set and technical expertise to rebound. A lot of folks have been left behind and blame politicians for not protecting their economic interests. It’s why the polling in a classic swing state like Ohio shows a tight race. Many Americans are fearful about their future and that of their children. Place on top of that anxiety over the demographic changes we are witnessing and Trump’s messaging on jobs strikes a nerve.

His message in response to the question on race was equally coded. By playing the “law and order” card Trump was signaling to his base that he was aligned with them on their anxiety that “their” country was coming apart at the seams. He cleverly weaved in gun violence in Chicago and took aim at President Obama and Clinton for not stopping it. He went one step further and this is important. Knowing he has little Black support and that he has been branded a racist, Trump countered that if Clinton really cared about the Black community she would be taking an aggressive stand on criminal behavior that has taken thousands of Black lives. He was telling his supporters that it’s not racist to support the police because they can restore law and order and protect the Black community from the violence that Washington has not addressed. Yes, he was absolutely lying on “stop and frisk” but his outward supporters and those hiding in the crevices did not hear that. It doesn’t matter to them that the practice of targeting people of color was deemed unconstitutional.

Lastly, he planted the “insider” tag on Clinton time and time again. His robotic chorus of “30 years” plays directly into that mood that is out there. Trump kept going back to the point that Hillary Clinton was a Washington insider who has had almost three decades to fix the problems she now claims she has the answers to solve. Even her citing her recently published policy tome plays into that narrative. Yes, Hillary Clinton is more experienced but Trump hit back by telling his supporters it's bad experience. Most voters are not casting votes based on a resume but pull that lever because of a feeling. We would like to think that there is some deeply intellectual and analytical approach to voting but most voters go with their gut. Bill Clinton understood that. Had there been a few more months of campaigning in 1992 he likely would not have defeated George H. Bush because the economy was beginning to recover.

“Clinton supporters need to get out of the fog and stop acting as if the White House is bequeathed to her. If you support Hillary Clinton, you should resist being lulled into a false sense of security because your candidate is the smartest person in the room.”

To date Hillary Clinton has not been able to widen her lead substantively over Donald Trump and she has spent a lot of money. In key states like Pennsylvania and Ohio they are in a virtual tie. Last night’s debate might move the needle a bit in her direction but it doesn’t change the optics of this race. The enthusiasm gap in this race is palatable. When I see dozens of white college students voicing their support for Trump, as they did as I milled around the Hofstra campus last night it suggests a different dynamic is at play. Four years ago that campus was awash in kids with Obama t-shirts when the debate took place. While there was certainly Clinton supporters among the students, throughout the night the Fox News Channel stage outside the student center attracted the largest and most boisterous crowds. It might be an unscientific measurement but in this election year it is a good barometer.

Clinton supporters need to get out of the fog and stop acting as if the White House is bequeathed to her. That's a smugness she can't afford. If you support Hillary Clinton, you should resist being lulled into a false sense of security because your candidate is the smartest person in the room. It’s often the unruly and boisterous kid in the classroom, the one who everyone claimed couldn’t cut it, who shows up at the 20-year high school class reunion as the millionaire owning the very building where the event is held.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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