Debates seldom make a great deal of difference to the outcome of the election. Mitt Romney’s dominating performance in the first debate four years ago? Didn’t stop Obama’s reelection. Gerald Ford’s “no domination of Eastern Europe” gaffe in 1976? He rose after it.
Sure, it’s better to win than to lose, but the historical record is a good reminder of why Hillary Clinton’s strong performance in Monday’s debate could have a limited effect on the election’s outcome. If it does have a lasting impact, however, it will likely be due not to what happened on stage at Hofstra University, but due to Donald Trump’s hectic, frenetic crisis-communications strategy.
This is a pattern amply seen before in the election: Trump gets caught in a tight spot, and rather de-escalate, he tends to take out the bellows and fan the flames as much as he can. Time and again, he has managed to overtake a news cycle (and often overshadow bad news about Clinton) thanks to bad crisis management. It’s what he did in his tiff with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and so far it’s his post-debate strategy, too.
The Trump crisis playbook tends to have three, overlapping tactics. First, he doubles down on anything he said that’s getting heat. Second, he insists that he actually was right and/or victorious. Third, he blames a rigged game for any troubles he encounters. And all of these problems are amplified by a splintered, disorganized surrogate operation with no message discipline. That’s all on display this week.
Take the story of Alicia Machado, an ambush set for Trump by Clinton. During the debate, she began telling the story of the former Miss Universe, whom Trump berated for gaining weight, and who says she became a citizen in order to vote against him this year. During the debate, a furious Trump kept interrupting Clinton. “Where did you get this? Where did you get this?” he demanded.
The next morning, he phoned into Fox and Friends, a favorite cozy landing pad. Trump returned to his attack on Machado, saying that Clinton had “talked about her like she was Mother Teresa.” Trump said:
You know, I know that person. That person was a Miss Universe person, and she was the worst we ever had. The worst, the absolute worse, she was impossible. She was a Miss Universe contestant and ultimately a winner who they had a tremendously difficult time with as Miss Universe. She was the winner and she gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem.
Here’s the chronology: First, the Clinton campaign released an ad featuring images of young girls looking at themselves in mirrors, with misogynistic comments playing behind it. Second, Clinton laid a trap for Trump, pointing out his comments about Machado during the debate. Then, Trump went on national television and went out of his way to repeat the offending comments. Brooklyn couldn’t have scripted it better.
Trump is also insisting that he simply won the debate. That’s not a widely shared view. Pundits of all stripes rated the debate a win for Clinton, as did focus groups and a few scientific polls. Even Trump’s alt-right hordes online thought he did poorly. Trump aides, without quite saying he lost, acknowledged he had a lackluster night. But Trump begs to differ:
Every on-line poll, Time Magazine, Drudge etc., has me winning the debate. Thank you to Fox & Friends for so reporting!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 28, 2016
Third, in a move that sits somewhat uneasily with his insistence that he won, Trump has found plenty of scapegoats for his performance. He and his allies have blamed moderator Lester Holt, both for asking Trump about some uncomfortable things (his espousal of the lie that Barack Obama was not born in America, why he won’t release his tax returns*) and for interrupting Trump to point out, correctly, that there is no proof for his claim that he opposed the war in Iraq.
Even stranger, Trump has tried to blame his poor showing, and in particular his constant sniffling during the debate, on a bad microphone. Anyone who watched the debate could clearly hear the sniffling; they could also hear Trump loud and clear. They say that if you’re blaming the referees, you’re losing. What does it mean if you're blaming the mics?
Amidst all this, there’s chaos among Trump surrogates about what he ought to do next.
Some of them are arguing that Trump ought to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs in the 1980s and 1990s. Trump flirted with the idea, saying he would bring Gennifer Flowers to the debate and then backing off. In the spin room after the debate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Trump was going to get into it but didn’t do so out of respect for Chelsea Clinton.
It seems like that detente won’t last. Trump hinted that he had been “holding back,” which itself would raise doubts about his debate strategy. Not all of his surrogates were so reserved. In the post-debate “spin room” Monday evening, Giuliani used the affair to attack Clinton.
“If you didn’t know the moment Monica Lewinsky said that Bill Clinton violated her, that she was telling the truth, then you’re too stupid to be President,” Giuliani said. “I sure would have talked about what she did to Monica Lewinsky.” (As many people pointed out, Giuliani—who, while having an adulterous affair, informed his second wife that he wanted a divorce via a public press conference—was a curious envoy for this message.)
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, told CNN that Trump deserved credit for being “polite and a gentleman” by not bringing it up. Eric Trump says it took “courage” for his father not to bring it up. A whole range of Trump surrogates are echoing the point.
Making Bill Clinton’s affairs a centerpiece is a bit of a headscratcher. Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings hit their all-time high in 1998, when her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was in the news. There’s a reason most Republicans have avoided attacking Hillary Clinton with the affairs: It has become entrenched conventional wisdom that doing so is actually good for her, as it allows her to seem sympathetic, humanizing a candidate who voters often find cool and robotic.
Perhaps this view is wrong, like the many other pieces of outdated political received wisdom that Trump has knocked down. But if the Trump campaign had come to that conclusion through careful thought, one would expect a rather different rollout. They would also likely have gone with the attack on Monday. The disorganized approach now—with Giuliani going for the attack head-on, while Conway argues Trump ought to be congratulated for not using it—suggests a campaign grasping for the nearest weapon it can find, without thinking very hard about how the fight might go.
This diffuse messaging is present as advisers talk about the next debate, too. Aides told The New York Times that they will try to get Trump to actually prepare for the next meeting, on October 9. But they said they were unsure whether Trump would be willing to keep his nose to the grindstone. No wonder.
Not only does Trump seem to have a minimal attention span, he seems to believe that he won the debate and that any suggestion he didn’t is the product of a bad mic and a biased moderator. Why prepare more? Meanwhile, Giuliani is floating that Trump should perhaps just skip the other debates.
The next two weeks pose a series of challenges to Trump. He has still not built a lasting lead over Clinton in the polls, and she managed to open up a series of new fronts in the debate, from his apparent admission of paying no taxes to his unintelligible answer on cyberwarfare. But this week, Trump’s biggest liability is his own tendency to take a problem and make it worse.
* This story originally stated that Holt brought up a 1973 Department of Justice lawsuit against the Trump Organization. Clinton did. We regret the error.