Trump’s debate meltdown gives the advantage back to Clinton

Steven Biel: I said during the primaries that Republicans had 16 candidates who could beat Hillary Clinton but nominated the 17th. Monday’s debate showed why. The expectations for Trump were laughably low going and he didn’t come close to meeting them.

Lance Dutson: That debate was quite a spectacle. The stakes were high, and both candidates cemented different aspects of their images: Hillary managed a relatively error-free performance as the wonk-in-chief, and Donald taught America why “mansplaining” has become such a source of revulsion for people.

Steven: Clinton was fine on Monday night. She wasn’t great. But Trump was just awful, reverting to his “seemingly trying to lose” mode he was in after the Democratic convention when he stated attacking the Khan family. Now he’s keeping it going by doubling down on calling Ms. Universe Alicia Machado “fat.”

Lance: Clinton has some weaknesses no doubt, and Trump was able to cast some doubt on her decision making skills. But his personality is so repulsive and his behavior so offensive, I truly think it counteracts anything he says.

Steven: With a 65% wrong track number, an outsider candidate should be able to crush an establishment figure like Clinton by just saying “change” over and over. But Trump just can’t control himself.

Lance: It’s so depressing knowing how badly Mitt Romney or some other competent Republican would be beating Hillary right now. Trump really comes off like the bully in an after-school special. His meltdown at the end of the debate was classic though–praising himself for being so kind that he wouldn’t attack Hillary over Bill’s affairs! You can’t make it up.

Steven: It’s equally depressing to think about what a massive landslide wave Democrats would be getting if we had someone like Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

So we agree Trump was a disaster. What did you think of Clinton’s performance on Monday? Did she win it or did Trump simply lose it?

Lance: I actually thought she won it more than he lost it. Watching him over this last year in too many debates, it’s really become clear how difficult he is to debate. How do you combat a guy who has no concern for the truth, or how rude people think he is? I thought she was a little reticent at first, but she kept herself from being dragged into emotional exchanges and she appeared dignified. And in a couple of cases she really landed some staggering blows. So I thought she did well, and I think there are Republicans out there who would feel more comfortable pulling the lever for her after that debate.

Steven: I do think it was a very important victory for her. Between the pneumonia, “basket of deplorables,” and the inevitable fading of her massive convention bounce, Clinton’s swing state firewall was in serious danger of breaking apart. I think a week from now will see her reestablish a solid 3 to 5 point lead in the national polls and a wide electoral lead, mostly by moving Johnson, Stein, as undecided voters into the Clinton camp.

What do you make of the fact that Trump is doing so much better than Romney in Maine? At this point you have to say he’s likely to be the first Republican to win an electoral vote in Maine since H.W. in ’88.

Lance: I don’t know what to make of it. I believe it has less to do with Trump than it does with Hillary. These demagogue candidates like LePage and Trump seem to find ways to win there, but it’s not like they’re getting 60% support. I think the Democratic Party has strayed so far from what it used to be that traditional white working class voters find themselves without a party more and more. If Democrats would start talking plausibly about job creation, i think it would be a different story.

Steven: Interesting. What’s an example of a policy that Democrats used to support but don’t anymore that would make a difference in the second district?

Lance: It’s the things they aren’t saying that are the problem. Democrats in Maine have earned the reputation of being anti-business. And the Maine electorate learned the hard way that you need businesses to grow jobs. Democrats have all kinds of worth causes, but it’s not clear how they relate to jobs. If you have one candidate who says “jobs jobs jobs” and another candidate who says “Obamacare, higher taxes, and organic farming,” the jobs candidate will win every time.

Steven: If you look at the nation’s economic performance under Clinton and Obama compared to Bush 1 an 2, it’s hard for me to understand how anyone comes away with the conclusion that Republicans are better on jobs and the economy. I think the reason Trump is over-performing in District 2 compared to his national numbers is that his overwhelming strength is among non-college educated white people who live in areas with very little racial diversity. And that pretty much describes District 2 to a T. The problem for Trump is that it’s not at all what America looks like as a whole. District 2 voting for Trump is kind of the perfect symbol for the way that part of the state is being left behind culturally and economically as well as politically.

Lance: I think that’s a legitimate explanation. Anger is a powerful force in politics, and Maine is not used to picking its leaders that way. But Trump is a master at exploiting xenophobic anxieties, and it appears District 2 is ripe for that type of demagoguery.

Steven: So what’s the current state of the race? I tend to think Clinton’s post-convention bounce was always inflated. I said in this space that I expected her to get a 3-5 point lead, not the 7-9 she ended up with. This weekend, Trump hit his high water mark, still trailing by about 1-2 points in the national polling averages. I figure by this time next week she’ll be in that 3-5 point range I thought was this race’s natural level.

Lance: I think it’s her race to lose, but she needs to stop being the beta candidate and start acting like the president. The debate was an excellent start. But this campaign needs to stop being run on Trump’s terms. I don’t think she should demur from criticizing him, but she’s got to be in control now. Otherwise disaffected voters will project their hopes and dreams on the idea of “shaking things up,” and we’ll end up with the LePage Administration on steroids in the White House.

Steven: Like I said at the start, if your party had nominated any of the 16 others I’d be much more concerned. But no matter how much Trump loves the poorly educated, there just aren’t enough of them to get him over the top.

Left Brain Right Brain

About Left Brain Right Brain

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party. Steven Biel is a former campaign director for and president of the Portland-based political consulting firm Steven Biel Strategies, which provides digital campaign support to organizations including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Courage Campaign, and Environment America.