Can Trump Win by Being Trump?

Posted on September 28, 2016 by

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I was surprised by the tameness of Monday night’s debate. Compared to the heated Republican primary debates, Trump was fairly restrained (at least initially). It was clear that he was still on the short leash he has been on since the Republican Convention. Even though the first debate is the most important in setting the narrative of success or failure through subsequent debates, I don’t think this radically shifted opinions on Clinton or Trump. Both candidates behaved largely as they were expected to. Where Trump was flustered and vague, Clinton came off as competent, rehearsed, and unperturbed by his increasingly frequent interruptions. Although the official debate narratives are being shaped and polls still being finalized, the general consensus was that Hillary had a solid victory. Her strong performance also resulted in a small bump in her polls.

While Trump proved capable of some basic level of performance and behavior, his answers on policy were still vague and he struggled to reconcile inconsistencies in past statements. When confronted with evidence of his support for the Iraq War, Trump repeatedly denied the allegation. While Clinton’s email controversy will likely continue to be an issue, she was expecting the question and had a ready answer. By now, Trump’s campaign should be able to coach him for future questions about his past opinions. By the end of the debate he had unraveled and appeared flustered but it was still evident that he could appear presidential (an admittedly low bar). However, his low overall performance indicates that Trump will need to change his debate strategy to match Clinton’s, and more importantly, to win undecided voters. For the college-educated white voters that the Republicans need to woo, his performance was probably a step in the right direction.

But beyond appearances and behavior, Trump still needs to prove he can explain and articulate his campaign’s policy specifics, something that he still was struggling with during the debate. One moment in which this was particularly evident was when asked by Lester Holt about recent cyberattacks and national security, or the “cyber.”

“As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not. I don’t think anybody knows that it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia—I don’t, maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”

From Twitter user @rseymour, Trump’s unedited quote in the style of ee cummings, formatted for clarity  poetic value.

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Trump’s rambling statement is amusing, but not from a presidential candidate. Between bringing up an obese elite hacker and his own 10-year-old son, he has some work to do here. Compared to Clinton’s vast foreign policy experience, he will need to have some serious answers ready. His advisors hope to provide him with more rigorous preparation for the next debates. Trump still needs to be able to counter Clinton’s attacks. Although the topic of emails was brought up, I was surprised Trump did not pounce on Clinton with Benghazi – a topic on which the GOP has been relentlessly hounding Hillary for years. Though she had an answer ready about her email server, it is still one weakness that Republicans can exploit. Although Trump threatened to bring Gennifer Flowers to the debate, I do not think that bringing up any of Bill Clinton’s infidelities will ruffle Hillary or appeal to the public. In the 1990s, these attacks only increased sympathy for Hillary. Although Trump’s campaign wants to prepare him with policy specifics, his fans actually want him to hit back. I will be curious to see how this tension between his fan base, his campaign, and his family will play out in the future. For now, Hillary walks away with another solid performance while Trump has to reconcile his own tendencies to take a problem and make it worse.

 

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