So I can score this a bunch of different ways. If the metric was the first 30 minutes — a standard that kind of sprung out of nowhere in the last 24 hours — then I think Trump won. He was relatively coherent, got his big issues and themes across and managed to be very aggressive without seeming too much of a cad (I am grading on the very generous Trump curve). On the substance, I think most of his answers were wrong on the facts or the principle, but I’m used to that not mattering anymore. He was good at getting the message(s) that got him this far across. He also won the body language debate in the beginning. Put the TV on mute, and he clearly dominated.
But by around halftime he started to come apart. I don’t think he had any disastrous gaffes, no truly painful soundbites that will haunt him in the days to come, which in itself is a kind of victory for Trump. He also scored some good points on Hillary’s “30 years” of getting little accomplished and the growth of ISIS. But it was clear that once Trump took the bait about his “small loan” from his father, that Hillary would be able to lead Trump in almost whatever direction she wanted.
That was probably the most impressive thing about her performance. Other than that, she was uninspiring, un-amusing, un-entertaining, but…fine. She controlled much of the tempo. She said some ridiculous things too — on Iran, the need to become a “clean energy superpower,” her email etc — but I don’t think she scared away any swing voters, in part because when Hillary is wrong she doesn’t sound unhinged.
And that raises the best way to score this debate. What did swing or persuadable voters think? If you’re truly pro-Hillary or pro-Trump it doesn’t matter what you thought tonight. Your vote is baked in. But if you’re on the fence or thinking about not voting at all, your impression matters — a lot. And in this regard, I think Clinton was the winner. Unpersuaded college educated white women didn’t come away from this debate — at least not in large numbers — feeling reassured by Trump. Clinton was narrowcasting at the voters she needs. Trump was broadcasting to the voters he already has. Neither put anything away tonight.