“Right from the start, he seemed grossly unprepared for a serious discussion,” Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist, maintained after the debate. “I think he became unraveled during it. … I think on the temperamental side he reinforced the sense that this guy just doesn't have the temperament to be president, and on the substantive side I think he came completely unprepared for what is the biggest job in the world.”
Given the underlying divisions in the electorate, Benenson said, it was unclear whether the debate would increase the share of voters who view Trump as unqualified. “But,” he added, “I think it certainly reinforced any images for people who held that [view] on the way in."
Through the campaign so far, each campaign has largely sublimated policy critiques to sustained efforts to brand the other as unfit for the presidency. In its opening moments, the debate seemed like it might break that pattern. Trump spoke directly to his blue-collar base with a slashing attack on trade deals and pledges to punish American companies that move jobs overseas; those proved his most forceful moments of the evening, even if they likely induced heartburn for many congressional Republicans and their allies in business institutions like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Clinton, unsteady in her response on trade, pivoted to firmer ground by making a familiar Democratic argument against Republicans that has been surprisingly muted in her campaign to date: the charge that Trump’s economic plan represented a version of trickle-down economics that would mostly benefit rich people like himself.
But before long, the debate shifted back to the terrain on which both sides have seemed most comfortable: challenging the other’s qualifications, ethics, and temperament. And on that front, Clinton dominated the discussion, especially as the debate proceeded and Trump seemed to palpably lose steam (notwithstanding his attacks on Clinton’s “stamina”). “I thought he passed the test well in the first half,” said John Brabender, the chief strategist for Rick Santorum during the 2012 and 2016 presidential primaries. “In the second half, he spent too much time explaining and answering the question asked rather than delivering his message and transitioning the discussion to where he needed it to go.”
After his August stumbles, Trump has battled back to narrow the race, largely through his dominant performance among working-class white voters. And while even those voters said in the CNN poll that Clinton had displayed more mastery of the issues, a solid 57 percent majority said Trump had shown he could do the job as president. That was one of several indications in the poll that Trump’s turbulent night was unlikely to significantly erode the support he has attracted so far.
But history suggests the share of voters now saying they will support Gary Johnson or Jill Stein will decline as the election nears. That means the ultimate winner will likely need to attract a larger share of the vote than Trump today is drawing in almost any survey, and Clinton is failing to reach in most. And it is on that front the debate may vex Trump most.