Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton met on the debate stage for the first time tonight … and neither one scored a knockout. Trump used the trade debate to dominate Hillary in the first thirty minutes, Hillary seized the momentum in the second thirty minutes, and the final third was a mixed bag. Hillary barely mentioned Vladimir Putin, and Trump never mentioned Benghazi. It was an evening of sharp banter and missed opportunities, but in the end, both candidates remained standing.
What does that mean? In our debate analysis below, I argue that it benefits Trump more. Supposedly Trump was going to have trouble keeping up with Hillary’s grasp of policy, and that was true at moments, but Trump didn’t get eclipsed enough to matter. Keeping pace with Hillary, and especially putting as much pressure as he managed in the first thirty minutes, puts him at the same level as Hillary in the eyes of voters. She needed to completely outclass Trump in order to make the point that he’s not up to the task of the presidency. Instead, she kept him in the ballgame, even with a bizarre last-minute attack about Trump’s treatment of a beauty-pageant contestant, an attack that fell flat a few months ago when Team Hillary tried launching it the last time.
How about Lester Holt? He’s getting pounded on Twitter, but he did a credible job for the most part. Holt got into an extended argument over Trump’s positions on the Iraq War, but otherwise stayed out of the mix except to attempt to enforce time limits. The questions provoked both candidates into personal exchanges. If Holt interrupted Trump more than Hillary, it’s only because Trump interrupted Hillary and ran over time limits more often. Those who worried about a Candy Crowley moment can breathe a sigh of relief; Holt didn’t change the trajectory of the debate, or the race.
Bottom line: I don’t expect to see a significant change in polling trajectory from this debate — and considering the current momentum, that’s good news for Trump. Team Hillary needed him to fall on his face, and they didn’t get that. That should have them worried, because in this case, the draw goes to the challenger rather than the quarter-century Washington champion.