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Hillary won because Trump was either not prepared or he grew tired and bored

The race for the White House remains Hillary Clinton’s to lose, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

ONE OF THE most eagerly anticipated television events in recent memory is now in the history books.

It is no surprise that the long-awaited showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was the dominant talking point in both new and old media in the United States.

But if social media is anything to go by, the number of people in this country now attempting to do a day’s work after staying up till almost 4am is staggering.

Who was the winner? Who was the loser? And what does it mean for the campaign?

In short, Hillary Clinton won; Donald Trump lost; and it’s unlikely to have moved the poll numbers very much.

Trump got off to an excellent start. When discussing the state of the economy – and the two contrasting stories of growth and stagnation in the US alluded to by debate moderator Lester Holt – the billionaire was on message.

His sketching, albeit light on detail, of the downside of trade deals, in particular the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), will have resonated strongly with the men and women who have been left behind by economic globalisation in must-win states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

He needs their votes badly.

And he scored some points by drawing attention to Hillary Clinton’s past and present support for “free” trade.

Moreover, Trump’s anti-politician rhetoric and the “all talk, no action” label he attached to his opponent – citing her lengthy tenure in public life and failure to adequately address some of the problems facing America before now – also were highly effective and will endear him to the millions of voters disgusted by the status quo.

After this strong showing in the early stages, however, the wheels fell off the wagon.

For most of the remainder of the debate, Trump’s input can only be described as blather and nonsense.

This included a bizarre hypothesis about “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” breaking into the Democratic National Committee; the role he played in forcing President Obama to produce his birth certificate; his conversations with shock jock Howard Stern and conservative talk show host Sean Hannity about the Iraq War; his 10-year-old son’s computer skills; and his having something not nice to say about Hillary Clinton, but refusing to divulge it.

Why he did not continue with his ‘America First’ message that has struck a chord with so many voters when it came to the broad themes of national security and the direction of the country is a mystery.

One possible explanation for his failure to do so is that he did not prepare.

Although his campaign subtly communicated that he did not do much in advance of the debate, most observers thought this to be a classic case of playing the expectations game, i.e., set the bar low and any coherence on the issues would have rendered his a good performance.

Yet it seems obvious that he actually was not sufficiently prepared. The other is that he grew tired or bored as the debate went on.

There is a big difference between one-on-one debates and forums with a dozen or more candidates, in which he did very well while seeking the Republican nomination.

Additionally, it is odd that, at the same time as he claimed that Hillary Clinton lacks the stamina to be president, he arguably did not have the stamina to compete at the highest level for a mere hour-and-a-half.

It was a good, but definitely not great, night for Hillary Clinton.

When it came to command of the issues and of policy she was manifestly on a different plane than Donald Trump. She was effective in raising questions about Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public and his temperament.

His statements about crime in urban areas and insistence that “stop and frisk” searches were an ideal means of policing afforded Clinton a chance to appeal to African American and other minority voters.

And her line as to why she stayed off the campaign trail in the days prior to the debate – “I prepared to be president” – was a memorable riposte.

On the other hand, she didn’t do enough to connect with the millions of men and women who have doubts about her character.

While she is never going to win over the haters, Clinton must convince some of those who are undecided that she is honest and trustworthy enough to be president.

She again acknowledged that she made a mistake with her email server and would do things differently if she could. But it didn’t seem as if her heart was in it.

The “apology” – if it was one – was perfunctory and emotionally detached. Both in dealing with her past missteps and in outlining her policies as 8 November draws closer, Hillary Clinton must reveal the more human and compassionate side that many close to her insists is there in spades.

She oozes competence and her qualifications are beyond doubt, but persona matters in American politics and she needs to campaign as much as a mother and a grandmother who is concerned about the future of struggling families as a committed lawyer, activist, public figure and diplomat who is ready to lead the US.

In the end, and if the precedent of past presidential debates is any dictate, last night is unlikely to move the poll numbers too far in any direction. That said, the upcoming vice- presidential debate and two further presidential debates will garner huge media attention and rapt audiences around the world.

But if the poll numbers stay as close as they are now – which is certainly an open question – this election will come down to old-fashioned US electoral politics: the respective campaigns’ ground games and get out the vote operations.

Hillary Clinton has a commanding advantage in this regard. And for this reason above all others, including her undeniable victory in last night’s debate, the race for the White House remains hers to lose.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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AS IT HAPPENED: Trump and Clinton clash in the first US presidential debate

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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