If a candidate wins a debate about topics nobody cares about, does it change a voter’s mind? I suppose we’ll find out in the next few days, but there’s no doubt the American people just watched a debate focused on topics that won’t make much of a difference in many of their lives.
According to a recent Pew Research poll, the three top issues for American voters are the economy, foreign policy and terrorism. And yet, Monday night’s debate centered a lion’s share of its time on race relations, stop and frisk policy, President Obama’s birth certificate and Donald Trump’s tax return.
The first segment presented by moderator Lester Holt was titled “Achieving Prosperity” and was supposed to center on jobs. This, on the face of it, appeared to address the economy, the top issue in that Pew poll. But, the premise of the first question was built on two narratives that both serve the Obama/Clinton perspective on the economy:
There are two economic realities in America today. There’s been a record six straight years of job growth, and new census numbers show incomes have increased at a record rate after years of stagnation. However, income inequality remains significant, and nearly half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
I’ve already hammered Lester Holt’s performance as moderator earlier this morning, but it is worth noting that the topic selection was entirely in Holt’s control. To only have one segment on the economy and to have it framed in the context of Obama’s great job growth and “income inequality” forces the conversation into territory that only appeals to Elizabeth Warren and her students, not a manufacturing employee who lost his job in Pennsylvania last month.
After that brief segment on the economy (and trade thanks to Trump raising the issue) the conversation for the rest of the evening degenerated into discussions about Donald Trump’s tax returns, Barack Obama’s Birth certificate, a lawsuit against Trump from 1972, the amount of debt Trump has used to leverage his buildings and Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination (have you heard she’s a woman?).
Why was the discussion about Donald Trump’s tax return and not about each American’s individual return and the increased burden we will feel under Clinton’s tax increase proposal? Or about the tax cuts proposed by Trump and how we might benefit from them?
Every American is affected by Obamacare and Hillary Clinton plans to keep the unpopular government program if not expand it. Why was there no discussion of health care policy?
When the discussion turned to terrorism, the point of departure was cybersecurity. Now, cybersecurity is an important issue, but is it the most pressing terror threat a mother or father feels when their child goes off to school or heads off to the mall? Why was there barely any discussion about increased security against domestic terror threats from ISIS and those inspired by ISIS?
Immigration ranks as the 6th most important topic for American voters and was certainly front and center during the entire Republican primary season and yet there was no discussion about our immigration policy and how it relates to our national security and our economy. Not. One. Question.
This was not just a failure of Moderator Holt but also of Donald Trump. A gifted politician knows how to take a question and pivot on it to serve their purpose. Trump has a keen instinct as to what topics resonate with the American people and that instinct has served him well these past few months. At the next debate, he needs to be better at taking a question that he knows, instinctively, that most voters don’t actually care about, expose it for what it is and then discuss a topic that will actually resonate with voters.
I think Hillary Clinton won the debate Monday night, but if the debate is about issues that the American people don’t care about, what did she really win?