One thing that will likely be quickly forgotten is that Donald Trump, as he did in the first two debates, sounded vaguely rational for the first 20 minutes or so, and even showed evidence of actual preparation. His answers on abortion, for example — “send the issue back to the states,” “Hillary Clinton wants 11-month-old babies ripped out of women’s stomachs!1!1!1!” — were on the one hand dumb but on the other hand the standard-issue responses Republican pols have been using to evade the party’s nationally unpopular position on abortion for time out of mind. But as the debate progressed he became less and less hinged, and finally made the lunatic statements that defined his performance so that any Republican less hacky than Jeffrey Lord had to admit he was pretty mush a disaster.
This unraveling isn’t something that just happened, though. While Trump is predictably worse in a one-on-one debate than in a crowded field, he’s also no longer up against a bunch of tomato cans who have no idea how to provoke him:
This is not normal. As Andrew Prokop concluded in his review of the political science evidence around presidential debates, “There’s little historical evidence that they’ve ever swung polls by more than a few percentage points.” In this case, they did. And it’s because Clinton executed a risky strategy flawlessly.
The dominant narrative of this election goes something like this. Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate who is winning because she is facing a yet weaker candidate. Her unfavorables are high, her vulnerabilities are obvious, and if she were running against a Marco Rubio or a Paul Ryan, she would be getting crushed. Lucky for her, she’s running against a hot orange mess with higher unfavorables, clearer vulnerabilities, and a tape where he brags about grabbing women “by the pussy.”
There’s truth to this narrative, but it also reflects our tendency to underestimate Clinton’s political effectiveness. Trump’s meltdown wasn’t an accident. The Clinton campaign coolly analyzed his weaknesses and then sprung trap after trap to take advantage of them.
Clinton’s successful execution of this strategy has been, fittingly, the product of traits that she’s often criticized for: her caution, her overpreparation, her blandness. And her particular ability to goad Trump and blunt the effectiveness of his political style has been inextricable from her gender. The result has been a political achievement of awesome dimensions, but one that Clinton gets scarce credit for because it looks like something Trump is doing, rather than something she is doing — which is, of course, the point.
Clinton is no Obama as a political talent, but debating is one thing she does really well, much better than Obama. One reason I’ve always been confident of her winning was that I assumed that you could consider what she did to Rick Lazio in the debates and then triple it. Sure, Trump is her nearly perfect opponent, but she knew how to put him away despite some obvious issue-based vulnerabilities.