The ‘D’ Word and the Debate
A Commentary by Fran Coombs
Discipline was the word for last night’s second presidential debate.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton exercised the professional focus she’s learned in 30-plus years in the public eye. Republican Donald Trump acknowledged early on, with some distaste, that he finally considers himself a politician and seemed to show it.
Trump entered the debate more under the gun than any candidate in recent history following the release of a video showing him discussing women in graphic sexual detail. He quickly apologized for the video, but the damage was done. Voters – and more importantly the media - were obsessing on the video all weekend, and our latest Rasmussen Reports White House Watch survey shows Trump trailing Clinton by seven points now after being in a tie with her on Friday.
Trump faced down the inevitable question about the video at the beginning of the debate by apologizing and then turning it on Clinton by highlighting her husband’s history of alleged sexual assault, even bringing a couple of the women in question to sit in the audience. He noted Bill Clinton’s impeachment, loss of his law license and the $850,000 fine he paid over one such incident.
Unfortunately for Trump, while Democrats stood like a wall behind President Clinton during the 1990s, senior Republicans have been running for the hills since the release of the Trump video, some even calling for him to step down as the party’s nominee. But that’s not surprising since two-out-of-three GOP voters (66%) think most top Republican leaders do not want Trump to be elected president of the United States.
For the rest of the evening, Trump exercised surprising discipline, eschewing the constant interruptions of his opponent that marked his first debate performance. He pounded Clinton on the issues and the questions about her State Department e-mail and her honesty that have plagued her entire campaign.
It was an effective strategy, given that 56% of voters believe both Clinton and Trump are liars. Following the release in June of the final congressional committee report on the 2012 incident in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed, 49% of voters said Clinton lied to the victims’ families about the nature of the attack.
Voters tend to believe that Trump is his own worst enemy, but he seemed to keep that side of his persona under control last night.
Clinton, on the other hand, stayed on message throughout most of the debate regardless of the questioning. She repeatedly wrapped her responses in references to women and children, with an occasional jab at Trump for racism. A big turnout of young women and black voters is an essential part of any Democratic win, and Clinton has had difficulty exciting either group. So last night she was talking past Trump and the moderators and trying to connect directly with those voters.
Clinton appeared flustered only one time when the moderators asked her about a quote in a WikiLeaks dump on Friday in which she said in a speech to a private group that politicians sometimes need “both a public and a private position” on some issues. She recalled that she was referring to how Abraham Lincoln had engineered the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery but never really answered the question. Trump ridiculed her effectively for hiding behind Honest Abe.
The former first lady and secretary of State seemed to have differences with President Obama in several areas including Syria and Obamacare but didn’t stress those disagreements, saying instead that she wanted to continue what the president has achieved.
Trump countered that this is in fact a very divided nation now, thanks to Obama, a view that a sizable majority of voters share.
Our surveying has repeatedly shown that most voters agree with Trump on many of the big issues like taxes and spending, free trade deals, illegal immigration, radical Islamic terrorism and law and order.
But then there are the intangibles – honesty, integrity, character, temperament, leadership skills – that voters question about both of these candidates. Will this debate and the final one on Wednesday, October 19, make a difference, or is the video the breakaway moment for Clinton?
Fran Coombs is the managing editor of Rasmussen Reports.
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