Chat: The second debate and an ’05 tape

Trump improved, but is it enough to reverse his slide?

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On Sunday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump met for the second presidential debate. After Mrs. Clinton’s dominant performance in their first head-to-head matchup, the stakes were high for Mr. Trump, but the release of a 2005 recording of the candidate making “extremely lewd” remarks about women raised them almost beyond reach. Political contributor Nathanael Roy and I discussed the debate, its aftermath, and where Donald Trump can go from here.


Matthew Reade

Good evening! What were your thoughts after watching Sunday night’s slugfest?

Nathanael Roy

I think the conventional wisdom has settled on the idea that Clinton won, but that Trump exceeded expectations. I grant that his expectations were low going into the debate, but expectations really aren’t significant anymore now that we are in a general election. Trump is no longer trying to stand out in a crowded field of candidates. He is in a one-on-one with Clinton and he is losing, so he had to win this one. He put in a performance that was more of a bogey or par when he needed at least a birdie.

Matthew Reade

I agree. Trump needed to win this debate to change the media narrative and reverse his polling slide, but he didn’t. He certainly redeemed himself by comparison to the first debate, but the way he prosecuted the case against Hillary Clinton appealed largely only to base voters. I think the CNN/ORC post-debate poll reflects this pretty well. 58 percent of the sample supported Clinton before the debate and 57 percent supported her after, but more than 6-in-10 thought Trump outperformed expectations. Trump didn’t win over anybody last night even though he did better than expected, which is a problem for him—like you said—because he’s losing.

Nathanael Roy

To your point about polling, I think the polls back you up when you say that Trump just doubled down on his base last night. He’s betting right now that he needs to lock down his core support and then try to pull down Clinton by bringing up controversies about her and her husband, but I just don’t see that bet working out well for him.

Matthew Reade

Right. Bringing up Bill Clinton and his alleged misconduct does not bring anyone new into the tent, so in that sense I think it is poor strategy. But it also helps muddy the waters about Trump’s deplorable comments on the tapes that were released on Friday, so there’s that.

Nathanael Roy

I also think his performance helps him drag Republican elites back into his camp. He has been hemorrhaging support from them since the tape of his lewd conversation came out, and more than that, Republicans who had already been against him, such as Mitt Romney, have been even more vocal since the tape’s release.

By consolidating the base behind him, he raises the costs to Republican officeholders of publicly abandoning his campaign. Trump recently tweeted about how the Republicans turning against him were hypocrites, ominously suggesting that they would “watch their poll numbers go down.” Trump might be calculating that if he goes down, he can take disloyal Republicans with him by urging his backers to withhold their support for them.

Matthew Reade

Sounds like a “mutually assured destruction” strategy. Not good for Trump, or for the Republicans who abandon him. By lashing out at Republicans who rescind their support for his candidacy, he plays up his anti-establishment credentials and whips up his base, giving himself more leverage with vulnerable Republican officeholders. But all those efforts do little to improve his standing against Clinton, since he isn’t attracting (m)any undecided voters with that pitch.

Nathanael Roy

Right. The antics he is employing make for decent television, but he needs votes. Like you, I suspect that most of the people who like what he is saying about Paul Ryan and Republican elites are probably already in his camp. Also, if Trump does win, he is going to need a Republican House and Senate to get things done, so telling his supporters not to vote for Republicans who don’t like him is just silly.

Matthew Reade

Good point. Were there any moments that you seized upon as particularly important in the debate?

Nathanael Roy

Other then #KenBone? I don’t think anything either candidate did or said will last more than half a news cycle unless Trump decides to lash out about something that bothered him on Twitter. I was happy to hear policy discussed for at least part of the debate, and healthcare got more play than in the last one.

Clinton did get a chance to talk about her 30-plus years in public service, which I thought was one of her more effective and relatable moments. I may be a bit biased because I am a proponent of CHIP, one of the policies she spearheaded as First Lady. Trump’s back and forth with Clinton played very well and put her on the defensive, but she was much more connected to the voters in the town hall than he was.

Matthew Reade

That was one of Clinton’s better moments, as it was the only time she really attempted to counter Trump’s “anti-establishment” narrative in a substantive way. Humanizing her experience in public service helps alleviate the widespread perception of Clinton as a bloodless and corrupt politician.

Besides the first few minutes, which featured Trump’s cringe-inducing defense of his lewd comments, I thought Trump did fairly well. He savaged Clinton on her email scandal, and his riposte about putting Clinton in jail was pretty clever—but also terrifying, depending on how you look at it.

Like you mentioned, he’s losing support from elected Republicans, and his poll numbers seem to be trending downward in the aftermath of the tape fiasco. What does this mean for Trump and the G.O.P.?

Nathanael Roy

Right. Though most of the polls since Friday have been tracking polls, the WSJ/NBC survey that came out today is a random dial poll, and it showed Clinton up 11 points in a four-way race. It had a small sample size and is only one data point, but if it proves to not be an outlier, it could spell very bad news for the Republicans and Trump. I had pretty much brushed off the possibility of the House being in play in November, but if Trump ends up that far underwater, it could put a lot more seats in play.

Matthew Reade

Right, and even if this poll is an outlier, these numbers cannot bode well for Trump. Even if the poll is off by four or five percent each way in Trump’s favor, Clinton still edges him by a couple points. That is the kind of margin we are talking about here.

But like you said, it is too early to say just how bad the post-lewd-conversation polling will look. Come Friday, we’ll have a much better picture of what these tapes did to his numbers.

So how exactly does Trump win this thing? Assuming the best case scenario, where he only sees a slight dip in the polls this week, he’ll still have 5-7 points to make up before Election Day, which is now in less than a month.

Nathanael Roy

I don’t see a pretty path forward for Trump. He needs to get the story off of him and onto Clinton, and I suspect her campaign is probably still holding back some opposition research on Trump in case things start to shift in his favor. Also, voting has already begun in many states, so Trump has almost no time to turn things around.

Matthew Reade

I agree. At this point, I think Trump is almost certain to lose in November. Even if he produces a miracle in the third debate, he is so underwater in the critical swing states that even a 3 or 4-point swing won’t give him the White House. He’s running out of time to move his numbers, and as long as the focus stays on him rather than Clinton, he won’t be able to broaden his support.

It’s also worth noting that the closer we get to Election Day, the fewer undecided voters there are to woo. So even if we grant Trump a miracle of some kind in the final week or two of the race, there may not be enough undecided voters left for him to turn a polling deficit into a narrow win on November 8th.


Photo: Reuters/Rick Wilking

  1. I don’t like Trump at all,very vulgar man but I am a Republican and we need to stick together for the Supreme Court!!!!

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