Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have met in the second of three presidential debates. The town-hall-style clash came just days after a video of Trump making lewd remarks about the treatment of women was made public. This became an early focus of the debate, while the two candidates later sparred over health care, tax reform and foreign relations.
The Conversation’s experts from Australia and the US were watching the debate. Their responses follow.
Clinton and Trump take different tacks
Nicole Hemmer, Assistant Professor, Miller Center, University of Virginia, and US Studies Centre, University of Sydney
For audiences around the world there were two radically different debates, both taking place on the same stage.
Hillary Clinton offered a traditional town-hall debate, modelled after her husband’s performance in 1992. The town-hall style, based on daytime talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show, favours empathy, warmth, and a personal touch.
Aware of this, Clinton spoke directly to the audience members, asking them questions about their lives and ending her answers on an optimistic note. Her answers were aimed right at moderates and undecided voters.
Trump went in a different direction. He turned to the qualities that served him so well on competitive reality TV: ridicule, domination, shock. He shoe-horned aggressive rally lines into a roughly debate-like performance that was aimed squarely at his base.
For months his supporters have been chanting “Lock her up!” Tonight Trump promised to do just that, in a breathtaking attack not just on Clinton but on the rule of law. No nominee has ever – ever – vowed to use the office of the presidency to imprison his opponent. His supporters loved it.
Clinton and Trump took two different tacks in this debate. Clinton’s is more likely to expand her voter base, so it seems like the obvious winner. But as 2016 has been an unprecedented campaign, we’ll have to wait to see whether the electorate agrees.
Clinton fails to land a killer blow on weakened Trump
Timothy L. Lynch, Associate Professor in Political Science, University of Melbourne
In one of the weakest positions imaginably for a presidential candidate, Trump should have been laughed off stage in St Louis. He wasn’t. He came to fight.
Trump’s belligerence was inversely proportionate to his status in the race and grasp of the facts. He wore a red tie, signalling aggressive intent.
Clinton punched away – diligently, intelligently, sometimes a little boringly – but she did not land a killer blow. Instead, Trump managed to turn his gross moral incorrectness – captured on video tape in 2005 – into some sort of additional claim to authenticity. He will surely lose in November but he hasn’t been beaten in this race, resisting blows that would have felled any other candidate.
It no longer seems to matter what he says or what of his previous conduct is unearthed. His supporters – of which there are probably still too few to get him over the Electoral College line – regard this as proof that he is the anti-politician they want.
Like the Terminator, Trump is seemly impervious to destruction. If it were not all in the service of Trump himself, such resilience would be almost worthy of admiration – but it is not and he isn’t.
Attacks on character make for a depressing spectacle
Kumuda Simpson, Lecturer in International Relations, La Trobe University
It was difficult to know what to expect from the second debate. The past few days have been extraordinary and the debate was necessarily going to be an opportunity to see how Trump would deal with the unprecedented crisis his horrendous comments about women has precipitated.
The leaked video of Trump boasting about sexual assault was rightly the first issue addressed. His response was superficial at best.
His attempts to apologise quickly turned into an incoherent rant about Islamic State. Clinton’s reaction was, by contrast, articulate and scathing of the recent revelations, drawing a link between them and the consistently negative and divisive language that has characterised his campaign.
For much of the debate both candidates attacked each other’s character and temperament. It was a depressing spectacle to observe.
When they did talk about actual policies, a pattern emerged that was similar to the first debate. Trump was at his strongest when talking about working-class struggle and the need to restore manufacturing jobs across the country. This is not because his economic policies are detailed and realistic, but because his recognition of the hardship and fear workers in America feel about the future resonates with many.
On foreign policy, though, Clinton highlighted the vast difference in experience and understanding between the two.
Trump’s comments about Syria – particularly his claim that Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are fighting Islamic State and thus the US needs to work with them – once again demonstrated his deep ignorance of the various conflicts in the Middle East region.
Clinton rightly pointed out that neither Assad nor Vladimir Putin have gone after Islamic State in any serious manner. This is one of the many reasons the US has criticised both the Russian and Syrian leaders.
It is unlikely that this debate will change the minds of either Clinton’s or Trump’s supporters. What remains to be seen is whether the past few days have well and truly destroyed Trump’s hopes for the presidency.
Clinton’s performance exposes a courtesy gap
Tom Clark, Associate Professor, College of Arts, Victoria University
This debate was less like a deciding moment, more like a snap audit. It cannot have shifted many views, but it clearly reflected where the campaign is up to and what its decisive issues now are. At the time of writing, the audience numbers are not clear — but the first debate drew 84 million viewers.
The 2016 campaign’s most significant events may have transpired over just the last few days: the fizzer-of-a-scoop from WikiLeaks; the Obama administration’s announcement that Russian hackers are meddling in the campaign; the release of the “Trump tapes” and the subsequent flood of Republican Party notaries declaring they will not vote for Trump in November’s presidential election.
One of the standout elements when Clinton and Trump share a stage is that she behaves so much more courteously than he does. For the second debate in a row, Trump constantly interjected and spoke over his interlocutors; Clinton held off from interrupting but for one occasion. This time, the moderators were actively onto it, and kept pointing it out each time it happened.
Basic manners count for remarkably little among partisan zealots, but they count for a great deal among the uncommitted swinging voters who decide most elections in any two-party state.
After a week of big plays that have clearly resloped the ground in Clinton’s favour, this courtesy gap probably counts for more votes than any debating point traded in this dysfunctional conversation.