My favorite part of the first presidential debate was Donald Trump’s reaction to it. In the face of a debate that was a draw at best, the Republican candidate proclaimed victory. Trump conveniently cited several (unscientific) polls showing him ahead, such as Fox News’ poll, completely ignoring the response of the majority of analysts and, perhaps the best indicator, the currency market.
Relative to the dollar, the Mexican peso strengthened two percent the day after the debate, a big shift in the foreign exchange market. Traders see a Trump victory — and the wall limiting Mexican commerce that would follow — as slightly less likely after the debate.
All in all, not much changed from the Donald Trump we saw in the primary debates. Trump continued to interrupt both his opponent and the moderator, Lester Holt. His response to Clinton’s accusation that he didn’t pay taxes was simply, “I’m smart.” That may well be true, but it is just about the last thing independent voters want to hear, especially when Trump is arguing for even more tax relief for the wealthy. This is an answer I would have expected from Trump in the primaries. With several months to prepare for this debate, he should have known better.
Trump’s strongest moment was his attack on Clinton’s personal email scandal. Clinton defended herself by calling it an honest mistake. Trump is right to point out that her conduct regarding the scandal is a bit more reminiscent of a cover-up operation. I was surprised Trump did not push harder on this point, although the Right seems to think it was the moderator’s fault.
But Hillary Clinton deserves plenty of credit; she is a tremendous debater. I was reminded of her performances against Bernie Sanders. With both Trump and Sanders, Clinton faced an opponent whose messages were fundamentally one of populism, albeit framed a bit differently. In both cases, she relied on calmness, specifics and expertise. Crucially, she avoided any gaffes, denying Trump of a signature moment on which to pounce.
And for the Bernie Sanders supporters that are still a bit salty, I hope you have noticed how much Clinton has tried to address the progressive message he pushed for. She has completely flip-flopped on the Transpacific Partnership (a trade deal) and has started to advocate for free tuition at public universities. This pivot is an attempt to court the ex-Bernie supporters who are now thinking of voting for a third-party candidate (or even of staying at home).
It will take time for the polls to fully reflect the effects of the debate, but the initial results are not good for Trump. Whereas the race was a dead heat going in to Tuesday, initial data seem to indicate that the race is tilting back toward Clinton; her polling average lead is around three percent. Of course, there are still two debates (and a month) until the elections, but Trump is going to have to spend a bit more time at the practice gym.