The final debate was a mixed bag for both candidates. Trump had some of his best moments in the first 30 minutes of the debate when he seemed calm, disciplined and prepared. On the 2nd Amendment, his pro-life stance and immigration, Trump seemed to hold his own and there were few distracting interruptions. Here’s the exchange on immigration:
Immediately after this, Chris Wallace confronted Hillary with a statement from a speech in which she talked about wanting open borders. Hillary claimed, rather implausibly, that she had been talking about the electrical grid. She then pivoted to a prepared answer about WikiLeaks and Russian hackers. Trump got the audience laughing (which was against the rules) when he said, “That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders.”
But later in the debate Trump had a tough time when asked about the women who have come forward to accuse him of inappropriate kissing or touching. Trump said the accusations were false and tried to discredit his accusers as people either seeking fame or, he suggested, working in concert with the Clinton campaign. But the entire topic was ready-made for Hillary who spun it into a recital of Trump’s statements about the Khan family, Judge Curiel, etc. This was probably Hillary’s best moment, admittedly because it was such an easy opening for her to attack Trump.
One of the most surprising moments of the night came when Wallace asked Trump if he would accept the results of the election. Trump would only say, “I will look at it at the time.” He added, “I’ll keep you in suspense.” Given the focus on Trump’s talk about a rigged election, this moment will certainly become one of the highlights of the debate. Trump’s answer was honest but not very strategic.
Near the end of the debate things got a little bit chippy when the topic turned to entitlements. Chris Wallace introduced the topic by noting that both Medicare and Social Security were running out of money. He asked if each candidate would consider a mix of taxes and benefits to solve this problem. Trump would not say he would raise taxes but he pivoted to Obamacare and suggested he would repeal and replace it. By contrast, Hillary was eager to raise taxes and took a cheap shot at Trump during her answer. “My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it…” she said. At this point Trump looked over at Hillary, who was still smiling at her own cleverness, and interjected, “Such a nasty woman.”
So who won the final debate? I felt Trump won the first third, Hillary won the 2nd third and the final third was closer to a draw. The one caveat is that Trump’s answer about accepting the results of the election seems like an own goal, one that will probably dominate the news coverage for the rest of the week.
The real winner was arguably moderator Chris Wallace who asked very tough questions of both candidates and didn’t get steamrolled too often. But one thing we learned after the first debate is that the actual performance of the candidates is really just a jumping off point for the media to fashion its own conventional wisdom around. By next week that conventional wisdom, on who won or lost, could look very different than it does tonight.