Zero-sum game, zero-score debate

Well, the pivotal moment came and went – Donald and Secretary Clinton (is that OK with you? I just want you to be happy) faced off Monday night and we all lived to fight another day. Here’s what didn’t happen:

1) a question about a fake government agency

2) a dig at Donald’s small hands

3) a brawl

4) anything particularly significant

One week later and POLITICO’s numbers that mattered this week show a definitive win from Hillary Clinton. While his 40% chunk of loyal supporters didn’t waver, he made no headway with undecided likely voters – a performance like Monday’s doesn’t convince those who still view him as “strongly unfavorable.” Still only 31% of voters find him trustworthy, and 59% think he lacks that coveted temperament to be President.

All in all, though, the new polls are hardly significant deviations from what we saw pre-debate. A few stories have stuck in the last few news cycles: Trump’s tax returns and Alicia Machado, say, but the numbers reveal an unconvinced electorate.

Arthur Brooks at the Times sees the lack of deviation as poor strategy on both candidates’ parts. As part of their live opinion analysis, Brooks explained the implications behind our low expectations – and lack of surprise at the result – as a failure to recapture the imagination of the undecideds who think they know so much about Clinton and Trump:

Most people will say Mrs. Clinton got the better of these exchanges and had a good night. But both missed the opportunity to break out and show more repertoire. Mr. Trump continued to own the image of “strength,” toughness and the notion of shaking up the D.C. status quo. Mrs. Clinton kept her perceived monopoly on empathy and compassion for vulnerable people.
Interesting academic work suggests the most successful politicians defy conventional categories and steal traits that are normally associated with their opponents. The candidates will need to at least attempt this kind of shakeup to have any hope of achieving breakout in this campaign.

What would that look like? Where could you poke Trump to find those rivers of compassion? How can Clinton’s wariness of the podium transform her into the Iron Maiden?

If Trump were to suddenly go on a 3am Twitter rant about his sympathy for the children of undocumented immigrants, his followers would be mortified. Even at the slightest deviation from his free-wheeling candor, his voters bristle at the perceived change in tactic; no one is voting for the soft side of Trump. And while more progressive Democrats were itching for a more “maverick,” less-beholden candidate, no Clinton supporter is hoping she’ll trade in her grandma branding for a politically-incorrect attack on…anything.

Maybe if we had this discussion in May, or if these nominations were sewn up after Super Tuesday, the camps would have time to get creative with their messaging to the undecideds. But with barely over five weeks left til Election Day, the talk is all swing state polls and likely voter models, not how this war will be won beyond a weary victory eeked out in the trenches.


Brooks, Arthur C. “The Missed Opportunities on Both Sides.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2016. Web.

Shepard, Steven. “5 Political Numbers to Watch.” POLITICO Magazine. POLITICO, 3 Oct. 2016. Web.

2 thoughts on “Zero-sum game, zero-score debate

  1. fitfortakeoffblog says:

    Both you and Aly touched up on the issue that the candidates missed opportunities to further speak about their political agendas. The debate, rather, focused on Clinton “taking the high road” while Trump rambled on about “making America great again” to the same audience who believes he actually can. It’s interesting however, that the number of Clinton supporters declined after the debate. At this point, it’s confusing to me as well as to what Clinton should do. I think it was feasible to not further her political agenda in her debate. However, I think in the next debate, she needs to “bring out the big guns” and forget about simply avoiding Trump’s demeanor. To sway those undecided voters, she needs to reiterate her political agenda and further outline that her opinions serve a larger audience that Trump’s targeted, small niche.


  2. Allison Bowen says:

    The debate was pretty much what everyone expected. Trump rambling about nothing in the vocabulary of a 4th grader and Hillary remaining poise while she gets continuously interrupted. As mentioned, neither of them did a great job of reaching out beyond their current base to persuade voters. No surprise from Trump, because even if his debate prep team (if he had one) had told him to do so, he wouldn’t have stuck to the script. Hillary on the other hand has a lot of work to do to win over Bernie supporters and independents. She needs to break loose from her establishment candidate shell.


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