The media room at last night's presidential debate at Hofstra University.
By all appearances there was a subdued feel on the campus of Hofstra University for the first of three presidential debates, as students watched the network and cable news outlets pre-debate programs outside the debate venue. Unlike four years ago when the Presidential Debate Commission held a debate at Hofstra, there was a lack of electricity in the air. In 2012 students seemed energized by the re-election campaign of President Obama and his support was evident wherever you turned on this Long Island New York campus. This time around there were as many students walking around in free “Debate 2016” t-shirts as there were sporting shirts in support of the Democrat or Republican candidate. It perhaps mirrors the general malaise of the electorate and the unpopularity of both of these candidates. Coming into the debate, tracking polls were showing the candidates to be in a virtual tie, with Hillary Clinton holding a negligible lead. Neither Clinton or her opponent, Republican Donald Trump. have been able to break the magical 50% barrier that is usually a sign of a candidates’ stickiness in a presidential election. They each walked on the stage needing to deliver a body blow to each other to create some separation in the polls.
With just weeks to go before Election Day this is a race that has proven difficult to assess and even more problematic in reading the mood of the electorate. Each candidate enjoyed the expected post-convention bump after Republicans gathered in Cleveland and Democrats descended on Philadelphia. Then something strange occurred; a literal seesaw of public opinion. Just as it appeared that Hillary Clinton was separating from her opponent, Trump inched his way back. And when Trump seemed to score some points, Clinton has managed to hang tough. It's been a classic boxing match, with the opponents scoring some hits but unable to deliver a knockout blow. This might be more of a problem for Clinton if it persists for the weeks to come. Trump is appearing resilient in key battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. His ability to stay close could be just enough for him to motivate his supporters to surge and put him over the top. Of course we have yet to see the impact of Clinton's media assault. With plenty of money the Democrat has the ability to wage an on-air war that could be relentless and start chipping away at segments of Trump's base that might start having second thoughts about his fitness for office.
For Hillary Clinton the challenge was to convince a still skeptical public, including some in her Democratic base, that her years of experience did not box her in as a status quo candidate despite being the consummate Washington insider. In a year in which it was expected Clinton would be able to use her Washington pedigree as a distinct advantage, the electorate has soured on those they perceive to be entrenched inside the Beltway. The former secretary of state survived a bruising primary season, battling Senator Bernie Sanders all the way to the convention floor in Philadelphia. Part of her challenge in motivating her Democratic base has been the resistance of many Sanders supporters to throw their support behind her. Clinton hasn't done herself any favors either. Her campaign's bungling of the controversy over her handling of e-mail communications while secretary of state helped confirm the sense for many that she is not trustworthy. Making matters worse was her taking ill at the ceremony in New York City commemorating the lives lost in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Clinton's slumping as she entered her vehicle, caught on video, came after the Trump campaign had insinuated she was hiding a serious illness. The circus atmosphere behind the e-mails and her becoming ill took the Clinton campaign off-message and allowed Trump to set the narrative.
As for Trump, his surge and survival defies explanation. There has perhaps been no other candidate in the history of modern presidential elections who has exhibited such ignorance on the campaign trail. His candidacy seems to be a campaign about nothing, very Seinfeldian in nature with Trump making up the script as he goes along. Aside from wanting to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the country and detain Muslims, Trump has been about as clear on policy as the morning fog rolling across the San Francisco bay. He has perfected the art of saying nothing in anticipation of more that never comes. He owes much of his success during this campaign to a lazy news media that initially did not take him seriously and gave him free reign, and airtime, to basically brand himself as a ‘serious’ presidential candidate. In recent weeks some papers have taken a more aggressive stand against Trump with the New York Times going so far as to run an editorial warning the public that he is a danger. Coming into the debate Trump's challenge was to lower expectations while leaving enough wiggle room for the post-debate spin to claim that he held his own. and for his team to claim victory. In essence, he had to do the political equivalent of walk and chew gum. His biggest challenge was perhaps staying on script and not devolving into the fire breathing, truth denying zealot he has shown himself to be on the campaign trail.
Each candidate arrived at Hofstra knowing it had work to do to expand their electoral coalition. Clinton, already running strong among women, African-Americans and Latinos, still has her work cut out for her in bringing white men and millennials into the fold. Trump, favored by white males and working class whites, has a long road to travel to build support among women, African-Americans and Latinos. Independent voters are another unknown in this election and could impact the outcome in key swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. And both Clinton and Trump, though more so Trump, face backlash within their own party. Thus far, it has not dented the enthusiasm of Trump supporters and in many ways plays into his narrative of being an outsider. If neither candidate can make significant inroads into groups of voters on the fence in the coming weeks, Election Day could be nail biter. Though there are countless projections calling for a Clinton victory, low voter turnout could be the thief in the night for the Democratic candidate.
Last night in the auditorium at Hofstra University we witnessed two presidential candidates, each with historically high unfavorable ratings, seek to deflate the other’s candidacy. Clinton was her usual policy wonk and competent self, comfortable in her skin and knowing how to poke her opponent. Trump didn’t depart from the script either. He continued to play the role of the billionaire “Everyman,” the anti-establishment candidate prepared to conquer Washington DC and rid the nation’s capital of career politicians that have failed the American public. Clinton was smoother, more polished. Trump was abrasive and aggressive. Each played to their audience in that regard and trying to claim one or the other “won” the debate is beside the point.
The rush by the news media to tag Clinton the winner of this slugfest is perhaps the best window into why this race is so close. Many forget that in 2008 Barack Obama was written off by many journalists and had few friends within the establishment Black political class. It was only after he dusted Clinton off that the media began to change their tune, and even still many questioned if he could defeat Senator John McCain. We saw the same intellectual laziness early in this presidential campaign. Most journalists wrote Trump off. The consensus was that a mainline Republican candidate like Jeb Bush would eventually clip Trump’s wings. When he surfaced as the sole survivor, many of these same journalists then began to feed his ego and play up to him. Now that there is a possibility he could win this election, the press is in panic mode, doing everything possible to discredit his candidacy. Trump’s public could care less about the media. In their minds they are part of the grand conspiracy.
What will matter in the weeks to come is not the theatrics of these debates. The most important factor that will determine who wins on Election Day is which candidate can mobilize its base. There are some holes for both Clinton and Trump to fill. For Trump, he has to find a way to fill the gap with distressed working class whites in key swing states. He has already lost women, African-Americans, and college educated voters. For her part Clinton has to turn a corner with millennial voters and somehow amp up the enthusiasm for her candidacy. She also has to shore up her support among Latino voters. Clinton is not doing as well as Barack Obama did among Black and Latino voters, and this could prove to be disastrous for her. While she has a commanding lead among Blacks, it’s about percentages in the context of turnout. Carrying 80% of the Black vote in a low turnout race is insufficient. The wild card are voters who are off the radar, off the political grid. These are likely white voters who vote their economic interest and willingly cross party lines if it is to their advantage.
This election is far from over and the real battle is not on a debate stage but in the trenches.