It’s a cliché of debate coverage to declare, “there was no game-changer, no knockout punches” but . . . tonight, in the third and final presidential debate, this was no game changer, and no knockout punches.
Maybe there was one self-inflicted knockout punch. Trump declared he wasn’t willing to commit to accepting the election results. He contradicted Mike Pence’s answers on this question in the past few days, but that’s not surprising. The grim implication is that on Election Night, Hillary Clinton could surpass 270 electoral votes and Trump will not concede; he may instead declare the election has been stolen from him. To a lot of voters, that sounds like a sore loser refusing to acknowledge his own defeat — and pouring gasoline onto an angry country and lighting a match.
Is there a legitimate concern about fraudulent votes? Sure. But most of the states are going to have margins beyond 100,000 votes. Based on past elections, some may have margins “only” in the tens of thousands. States like California, Texas, and New York could well have a margin of more than a million votes. If it comes down to another Florida-in-2000 scenario, it’s a different story. But right now, Trump needs a remarkable comeback in a slew of swing states just to get close to 270 electoral votes.
Trump had two particularly bad moments between his refusal to say that he will accept the election results on Election Night — “I’m going to keep you in suspense”– and his insistence that the accusations of groping and other sexual misconduct have been proven false and debunked. He had some better answers in policy, particularly on guns, abortion, Supreme Court justices, and Hillary Clinton’s scandals.
A fair question is how many voters are still watching. Debate viewership dropped between the first and second debate; we would expect it to drop even further for the third debate. Trump has to hope that enough voters are still open to voting for him, that those voters were watching tonight, and that they preferred his answers on policy more than his flat denials of behavior he previously boasted about and the implication that he’ll deny the legitimacy of the election results if he loses.
The meltdown continues.