Battle of the temperaments

8:25 pm on 27 September 2016

Opinion - The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was full of sound and fury, but what did it signify?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to reporters in “Spin Alley” following the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016.

Mr Trump, with his wife Melania, speaks to reporters in 'Spin Alley' following the first US presidential candidate debate, at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York. Photo: AFP

This could have gone very differently.

Look back at RNZ's live coverage of the debate or read a summary.

There was always the possibility that Donald Trump would play the humble man: diffident, apologetic and presidential.

It might have caught Hillary Clinton off guard. It may even have been the agreed plan because he repeatedly referred to his opponent as Secretary Clinton rather than his more usual epithet "Crooked Hillary".

She referred to him by the diminutive, "Donald".

But whatever he intended, what he did was charge in full of testosterone and try to dominate the stage. He shouted down his opponent, he interrupted, badgered, guffawed, groaned and snorted.

He has since claimed he was given a defective microphone.

And he momentarily seemed to realise he was doing it wrong after he had shouted down the moderator. But after a lull he charged right back in, like a slightly concussed All Black prop storming into the ruck, but heading the wrong way.

This kind of debate is won and lost on impressions, and those impressions are often made very quickly. They have little to do with the details of policy. They have a lot to do with how you look, how you talk, how you 'feel'. Demeanour and temperament rather than policy.

Anyone saying that Mr Trump did those things well tonight is selling you something.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, left, speaks as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gestures at the debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

The Republican nominee, left, speaks, as his Democratic rival gestures, in an early section of the debate. Photo: AFP

His night was filled with gaffes that, in most election years, would sink a campaign.

He called on China to invade North Korea, he bullied the moderator, he repeated over and over that he was against invading Iraq (despite recordings of the opposite), he claimed (again) that Mrs Clinton started the birther conspiracy, called the inner cities hell-holes, agreed he would sink Iranian battleships if they taunted American ones (but that was OK because it wouldn't start a war).

He dodged, ducked, obfuscated and just plain made things up. And what was worse, he looked like he was.

But this is not a normal election year and Mr Trump is not a normal candidate.

He said a few months ago he could shoot someone in Times Square and his supporters would still vote for him, and they cheered. Mr Trump's core supporters will be quite sure that he won, because they like that he is dominant and angry (and white and male), and he was all of those things.

Expectations temper performance and Mrs Clinton was expected to do better by most voters. She met that expectation, and Mr Trump helped her to top it.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary spraks during a debate-watch party at The Space at Westbury on September 26, 2016 in Westbury, New York.

Mrs Clinton speaks to supporters at a debate-watch party following the event. Photo: AFP

Mrs Clinton's supporters will be breathing again, especially after a couple of weeks of softening polls. Also, after a nerve-racking opening two minutes where she momentarily looked tired - like someone trying to read a speech off the inside of her eyelids.

Then, when Mr Trump roared in, she seemed to suddenly come alive.

Excellence in moderation

The other story (and a key influence tonight) was the performance of the moderator, NBC's Lester Holt, who will be bruised after it all but he rode the bucking bronco with gusto and held on to the bitter end.

He seems to have vowed he would not fall down where Matt Lauer did two weeks ago, lobbing easy hits and missing obvious follow ups.

Mr Holt addressed many of the issues that Mr Trump has refused to answer in recent months and firmly repeated his questions when there was no answer.

Moderator Lester Holt listens during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York.

NBC News anchor Lester Holt hosted and moderated the debate. Photo: AFP

He asked about tax returns, support for the Iraq war, Russian hacking, Mr Trump's treatment of women, race and the police's treatment of blacks. He calmly told Mr Trump that audits did not prevent tax returns from being released, and pointed out more than once when Mr Trump was less than honest.

This had Mr Trump shouting at Mr Holt rather than at Mrs Clinton.

The important thing is Mr Holt asked. And asked again. Not many people have had that opportunity. And every time Mr Trump fudged his answers.

Swallowing the nettle

These didn't have to be deadly traps, showing him up as peevish, tempestuous and mendacious; they could have been opportunities to eliminate poisoned chalices. He missed them.

Mrs Clinton demonstrated this early on when the issue of her emails came up.

She immediately took responsibility and apologised. Mr Trump's follow-up quickly lost steam. He was so confused by the mea culpa that he bizarrely segued the conversation back to his own tax returns.

Mr Trump's debate performance had an structure of sorts. The beginning was a loud failing of temperament, the second act was him stepping in all of the traps, then a bombastic fiasco on foreign policy, which he escaped only to move to a disastrous finale on his demeaning treatment of women.

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was full of sound and fury, but what did it signify?

The next debate between Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton will take place in two weeks. Photo: AFP

Any way you look the debate: be it body language, tone, demeanour, or policy discussion, it was a Clinton win. It was more one-sided than any debate for decades, possibly on a par with Ronald Reagan meeting Jimmy Carter.

Over the next day or two pundits will begin to wonder whether Mr Trump will call foul and refuse to return for the second debate in two weeks' time. That is a real possibility, though the second debate is a town hall affair, with questions from the audience that you might think would be safer territory for him.

Judging by tonight's debacle it won't be.

Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs