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Mud Flies in Nastiest Debate in American History

Abraham Lincoln—whose name was invoked several times on Sunday night—is surely spinning in his grave. He and Stephen A. Douglas certainly pulled no punches in their famous series of debates in 1858, but it was nothing like this. Ditto Kennedy and Nixon, Reagan and Carter, or Clinton and Bush. Donald Trump came into Sunday's event wounded and desperate, and he came out throwing haymakers. He set a standard for decorum, or lack thereof, that may never again be equaled (not even by the third and final Clinton-Trump debate). They're already calling it the "Fury in Missouri."

These two candidates loathe each other at this point. For those watchers who just arrived from Mars, and were unaware of this fact, they got a demonstration before a single word had even been uttered. At a pre-debate press conference, The Donald appeared with several of his invited guests, including Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. These women have all accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Not long thereafter, the candidates' families were asked to walk on stage and assume their seats shortly before the debate commenced. The handshakes that Bill Clinton shared with the two Trump sons were so lacking in enthusiasm, one might be forgiven for wondering if someone was worried about contracting leprosy. Then, when the candidates themselves came on stage, they chose not to shake hands at all, instead warily eyeing each other from a distance of about six feet.

Once the debate actually began, the inevitable question about Trump's p***ygate tape came up very quickly, and he made very clear that he (and his campaign staff) have decided upon their response. As he did in the video posted to his Twitter account on Saturday, Trump briefly apologized, and then deflected, suggesting that the Clintons have done far worse than anything he has said or done. He also went off on a talking-point tangent that ultimately culminated in a harangue about ISIS. An excerpt:

Yes, I'm very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it's locker room talk, and it's one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We're going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS.

This sort of talking-point driven, stream-of-consciousness monologue is Trump's calling card, of course, and was in full effect on Sunday. If someone who did not see the debate was given a list of the questions that Trump was asked, and then a list of his answers, they would have a very hard time matching column A with column B, because he rarely stayed on topic. The moderators were very assertive in trying to pin him down on certain points; sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they were not.

Indeed, it was clear that Donald Trump's primary strategy for the evening was to indulge his instincts and use what worked so well for him in the primary season: throwing big juicy pieces of red meat to the base, while also savaging his opponent. Given the rebellion fomenting against him in the Republican ranks, maybe shoring up his base was the right call. Or maybe not; the poll discussed below suggests they're still with him. In any case, he slammed Clinton with a laundry list of greatest hits—her dishonesty, her speeches to Wall Street, Benghazi, the emails, Bill's infidelities, ISIS, and so forth. Trump also paid no attention to his body language or—possibly—was deliberate in communicating his feelings non-verbally. Whatever the case may be, he spent much time during Clinton's responses pacing the stage, grimacing, rolling his eyes, snorting, and sometimes even standing slightly behind her (and over her) in a somewhat menacing fashion. He also interrupted her over and over, certainly more than the 51 times he interrupted her in the first debate.

These things alone, of course, would not make for the dirtiest debate in American history. They are a start, but what put it over the top was when Trump went beyond the garden-variety stuff into some truly vicious personal attacks and threats. At various points, Trump described Clinton as "the devil" and someone who "has tremendous hate in her heart." He also promised that, if elected, he would appoint a special prosecutor and that Clinton would "be in jail." Either The Donald is not aware of, or does not care about the implications of threatening to imprison a defeated opponent, in the style of Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, or a Latin American strongman.

Trump also had a secondary strategy for the evening. He and his campaign must be aware, by now, that he is going to lose each of these debates. Therefore, he spent much time complaining about the moderators, and the questions they were asking, and about the enforcement of time limits, and the like. The sniffles were back, too. Undoubtedly, he'll be on Hannity on Monday or Tuesday talking about how the debate was rigged against him, and maybe also how his microphone wasn't working. Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz were very assertive with their questions, their fact-checking, and their insistence that their inquiries be addressed. But they gave Clinton the same treatment, and there is little question that their performance will be praised widely outside the hallways of Trump Tower and Breitbart News.

Inasmuch as attacks and insults were the dominant story of the evening, there are quite a few things Trump did that are going to receive less attention than they would with any other candidate. As per usual, The Donald looked into the camera numerous times and told baldfaced lies, perhaps most notably asserting—yet again—that he opposed the Iraq War. He threw his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN) under the bus, declaring that Pence is wrong about Syria. There were also some pretty clear Breitbart-inspired anti-Semitic dog whistles, particularly Trump's repeated invocation of Sidney Blumenthal's name.

The reader may notice that, thus far, little has been said about Hillary Clinton's performance. That is because she was not the story of the evening. She had some excellent answers, particularly her list of people who deserve an apology from Trump and never got one, and her remarks on Aleppo. She also dissembled on occasion, as she is wont to do, and she took a few body blows. For example, the Lincoln reference noted above came up when Clinton was asked about her wikileaked speech in which she said that a politician must have a private position and a public position. She explained that by comparing herself to the Great Emancipator, specifically invoking the movie Lincoln and the fight to secure passage of the 13th Amendment. Not a terrible answer, but it set Trump up for his very best line of the night:

Now she's blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln. That's one that I haven't [heard]. OK, Honest Abe, Honest Abe never lied. That's the good thing. That's the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you. That's a big, big difference. We're talking about some difference.

In the end, however, the dominant theme of Hillary Clinton's night was what we might call "bemused exasperation." All she really needed to do on Sunday night was to keep Donald Trump from righting the ship, and so she spent much time smiling wanly at Trump's responses, challenging his assertions and attacks upon her, and urging voters to go to her website for fact checks. She was also working very hard not to interrupt Trump, and was largely successful in doing so.

Once the debate was over, Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway headed to the spin room to declare her candidate the big winner, predicting that many Clinton supporters will be "jumping ship tonight." One hopes that is just spin, because if Conway really believes that, she's either delusional, or setting herself up for disappointment, or both. As noted, Trump wasn't even speaking to moderates, independents, or Clinton voters on Sunday, so even if he had executed his strategy perfectly, he wouldn't have won over any of those people. And Trump did not execute his strategy perfectly—what serves him well at rallies full of true believers does not work well in debates, in the general election, or against Clinton. He lost, and he lost badly. More specifically, the Trump campaign badly needs to put the "Access Hollywood" video in the rearview mirror. Whether or not that is even possible, Sunday night certainly did not advance that goal. The semi-apology/pointing the finger at the Clintons/ISIS harangue is not going to get it done, any more than Clinton's semi-apologies/pointing the finger at Colin Powell solved her email headaches. In fact, one can argue that Trump's treatment of Clinton—which verged on bullying—actually made the problem worse.

This means, then, that Clinton was the clear winner. CNN's Insta-poll confirmed this; 57% of respondents gave her the nod compared to 34% for Trump, although the sample skewed slightly Democratic. That's not quite as large a gap as after the first debate, but it's still very large. Some Democrats were actually disappointed, because Clinton did not score a knockout blow. However, CNN's second-level numbers are instructive on that point. 60% of respondents said that Trump performed better than expected, while only 21% thought he did worse. For Clinton, 39% said she outperformed, while 26% thought she underperformed. In other words, Trump surprised more people with his performance than Clinton did, by a large margin, and he still got crushed. The expectations for Clinton are so high and for Trump are so low that it's very implausible he could be knocked out. He would have to walk off the stage, or expose himself, or issue forth with a racial slur. Heck, even those things might not do it.

In fact, there's a pretty good argument to be made that Clinton is better off with this result than with a knockout. If she'd cut the head off the snake, as it were, the GOP could move forward, either by abandoning its candidate or by trying to replace him. But Trump did well enough, and rallied the base enough, that the waters are muddied. Now they'll likely spend another week coping with the crisis, and taking no decisive action in either direction. And if "30 days before the election" seems too late to do anything substantive, Reince Priebus & Co. should try "20 days before the election" on for size.

In short, Sunday did little to change the status quo. Trump's base loves him, few others can stand him, and he's still got a messy problem to deal with. Clinton knows enough to stay out of the way under these circumstances, so she's likely to recede from the headlines quite a bit until the third and final debate, on October 19, draws close. (Z)

Five Takeaways from Politico about a Brutal Debate

Today there will be many lists of takeaways from the debate. One of the first lists is from Glenn Thrush of Politico:

  • Trump dragged Clinton down with him
  • Trump-Pence: A buddy movie gone bad
  • Trump dares reporters to find new sex stories
  • Donald ... still not so good with the ladies
  • The Wall Street speeches will be a problem for Clinton

Which of these is most significant remains to be seen. Numbers two and three have real potential. There are many rumors on the Internet that Mike Pence is thinking of resigning from the ticket. By now, Pence has probably stopped thinking about what he might do all day after he moves into the Naval Observatory. More likely, he is thinking about how best to help himself in his 2020 run. What better way than to drop off the ticket now, announcing (to religious conservatives) that he is utterly disgusted by Trump's (lack of) morality. If he should do this, it wouldn't be pretty and the RNC might have a wee bit of trouble finding someone to be airlifted onto the S.S. Titanic after the iceberg did its thing. "Hey Newt, are you doing anything in October?" In the worst case, Reince Priebus could sign up, just to make sure there were no constitutional issues raised by not having a Veep candidate.

The second potential problem is item three above. In 1988, Gary Hart invited reporters to check out his sex life. They complied. Bye, Gary! That was the end of his political career. Now that the media have been challenged to dig ... Well, as Con Edison used to say on its contruction sites, "Dig we must." If worse stuff turns up two or three weeks before the election, the House could be in play. Many political observers think that it would take a Clinton victory of 10 points or more to flip the House, but another Trump tape saying offensive things about women could do the job. (V)

Seven Takeaways from CNN about the Debate

CNN's Eric Bradner also got his list of takeaways up there quickly:

  • This is what scorching the earth looks like
  • Trump downplays lewd comments as mere locker room talk
  • Clinton escapes largely unscathed
  • Trump appeals to the base but didn't reach beyond it
  • Lock her up?!?
  • Trump's falsehoods
  • Did Trump stop the bleeding?

Donald Trump's main goal last night was to stop the bleeding caused by the tape that was released Friday. His supporters aren't the problem. It's everyone else. He made little attempt to sooth independents, suburban women, or Bernie-or-bust voters that worry he is unfit for the oval office. The bottom line here is that he failed to achieve what should have been his only goal: to show people that he is presidential material. (V)

Four Takeaways from the L.A. Times

Noah Bierman of the Los Angeles Times has four items on his list of takeaways:

  • Lock her up
  • Trump concedes he gets huge tax breaks
  • Trump and his running mate haven't been talking much
  • Bill Clinton makes a cameo (sort of)

Again we have the "lock her up" line that gets so much applause at Trump's rallies. Locking up your political opponents is a well-established practice—in banana republics. It often foreshadows an end to democracy. Although we have had heated political campaigns before, no candidate of either party has ever crossed this line, until now. Also, the gap between Pence and Trump is only going to get worse as Pence gets more focused on how to save his soul (a popular theme for religious conservatives) for his 2020 run. (V)

Six Takeaways from NBC

Finally we found a woman's list of takeaways. This list is from NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell:

  • The elephant in the room (the tape) topped the show
  • Clinton tries to connect all the dots (about Trump's character)
  • Trump talks about a special prosecutor to look at Clinton's emails
  • Trump admits to not paying federal taxes
  • Trump breaks with his own running mate on Syria
  • Trump continues to defend Russia

Note that in Caldwell's list, all the takeaways reflect very badly on Trump. If most other women react as she did, the gender gap is soon going to be like the Grand Canyon and Trump's polls are going to go south very fast.

Several points come up over and over. One is the special prosecutor/lock her up meme. Never before has any candidate threatened to jail his political opponents. This goes way, way beyond normal political attacks. A second issue that has been mentioned in several lists is the increasing problem that Mike Pence has. Does he want to continue to defend Trump, especially on foreign policy issues? Will we start seeing calls for Pence to resign from the ticket as an act of defiance? If he wants to run in 2020 as a man of courage, leaving now would probably be a huge selling point with dyed-in-the-wool conservatives in 2020, most of whom can't stomach Trump at all. (V)

Initial Post-tape, Pre-debate Poll: GOP Voters Want Party to Keep Trump

It seems like half the Republican leadership is asking Donald Trump to drop out and go build a hotel somewhere. Not so the Republican voters. A Politico/Morning Consult poll taken entirely on Saturday, after the p***ygate story was dominating the news for a day, shows that while the leadership is abandoning Trump, the base isn't. The bottom line is that 70% of Democrats think Trump should end his campaign now, but only 12% of Republicans think so. Also, 74% of Republican voters said the party should continue to back Trump. When Trump sees these numbers, he is going to be strengthened in his view that he should continue.

The poll was taken in an interesting way. Before any questions were asked, the 1,549 registered voters contacted were told to watch the video that started the discussion, followed by Trump's apology video. Thus, all of them were really familiar with its contents. While the apology has been widely panned by pundits, 65% of Republicans and 37% of all voters viewed Trump more favorably after seeing it. (V)

Conventional Wisdom May Be Wrong about Clinton's Problem with Millennials

It is well established that Hillary Clinton is getting about 30% of younger voters to support her, versus the 62% that Barack Obama got in 2008. The conventional wisdom here is that the missing voters are Bernie-or-bust types who are sulking and planning to vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein to punish the Democratic Party for not nominating their hero. However, a new study by Jon Rogowski, a professor of political science at Harvard, strongly suggests that this interpretation may be at least partially wrong. What Rogowski did was interview 2,000 millennials, far more than any pollster would. Furthermore, he broke down the results by race. First, he discovered that 14% of white voters from 18 to 30 won't vote—the true sulkers. Among all races, 16% intend to sit this one out. Then he looked at the people who said they will vote and got this breakdown:

Candidate Blacks Asians Latinos Whites All
Hillary Clinton 74% 71% 64% 41% 51%
Donald Trump 2% 6% 9% 31% 22%
Gary Johnson 4% 7% 10% 15% 12%
Jill Stein 3% 3% 10% 4% 5%
Someone else 10% 6% 3% 2% 4%
Undecided 6% 6% 4% 7% 6%

Several things are noteworthy here. First, while 21% of whites are not voting for Clinton or Trump, that is not enough to explain Clinton's share of the young vote compared to Obama's in 2012. What is even more important is how much the black, Asian, and Latino vote among the 18-30 cohort has fallen off since 2012. Obama got 91%, 88%, and 74% of these groups, respectively. So a large piece of Clinton's problem with the youth vote is that while young black voters prefer Clinton over Trump by a margin of 37 to 1, they are less enthusiastic about her than they were about Obama. Ditto for Asian Americans and Latinos.

In retrospect, Rogowski's findings seem very plausible. How could an older, white candidate generate the enthusiasm among minority voters that the first major-party minority candidate could? She can't, even with an opponent the young voters can't stand. In any event, Clinton's problems with millennials aren't really Jill Stein's fault. (V)

Republican Insiders Speak Out Now

Most behind-the-scenes Republican operators have been pretty circumspect in public about their nominee this year, but this weekend changed things for them. They are starting to say what they really think of Donald Trump in a way they didn't dare to before, possibly because they now are confident he will lose and thus not be in a position to punish them for straight talk. The Washington Post's Philip Rucker talked to some of them:

  • Steve Schmidt (John McCain's top strategist in 2008):
    There is nobody who holds any position of responsibility who in private conversations views Donald Trump as equipped mentally, morally, and intellectually to be the president of the United States. But scores of Republican leaders have failed a fundamental test of moral courage and political leadership in not speaking truth to the American people about what is so obvious.
  • Rick Wilson (Evan McMullin's adviser):
    Everything Trump touches dies. This is going to last forever. For years now, Democrats will be able to roll out TV ads and say, "When John Smith says today he's for a brighter future, remember who he stood by: Donald Trump. He stood by Donald Trumps misogyny, racism, sexism and stupidity."
  • Katie Packer (One of Mitt Romney's top strategists):
    Since Day One, I have been waving these giant red flags in front of people saying "No, no, no, don't go down this road because this road leads to our party being very tainted and a candidate who's dangerously unfit to be president," but people went storming ahead down that road anyhow.
  • John Weaver (top strategist for John McCain and John Kasich):
    We knew that no one who has gotten involved with Donald Trump in his personal life, in his professional life, or in his political life has come out of that for the better. No one. So why any of our aspiring political leaders thought that they could survive being associated with him and grow from that is beyond me.

And these are only the Republican strategists who are daring to take on their party's nominee in public. There are no doubt many more who agree with these individuals, but are scared to say it in public for fear of having their careers ruined. (V)

Why Are Top Evangelical Leaders Sticking by Trump?

Despite the tape, most of the better-known evangelical leaders who have supported Donald Trump all along are still with him. Gary Bauer said: "Hillary Clinton is committed to enacting policies that will erode religious liberty, promote abortion, make our country less safe, and leave our borders unprotected." Ralph Reed put it this way: "People of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defend religious freedom, grow the economy, appoint conservative judges and oppose the Iran nuclear deal." Reed did not explain exactly what the Bible has to say about the Iran nuclear deal. Tony Perkins issued a statement reaffirming his support for Trump because it "was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns." Actually, Perkins has harped on shared values for many years.

The truth of the matter is that none of these people like Trump at all. In fact, most probably can't stand him. The reason they are sticking with him, though, is that they know Hillary Clinton will appoint federal judges who will reduce the role of religion—and thus their power—in America. Her judges are almost certain to approve of abortion, consider it a criminal offense for small business to refuse service to gay people or gay couples, and oppose the use of public property for religious displays. In other words, she and her appointees are going to take the view that the First Amendment guarantees you the right to believe anything you want, but this doesn't mean you can take away the rights of others who don't believe what you do. This way of thinking is so abhorrent to the evangelicals that nothing Trump can do or say is going to shake their support for him. (V)

Today's Presidential Polls

Almost all the polls today are bad news for Donald Trump. To start with, Alaska is somewhat close. Alaska should be a complete blowout for any Republican. Next come Florida and Ohio, where Hillary Clinton continues to have a small lead. Then we have Pennsylvania, which is the key to Trump's hope of winning the Rust Belt. The most recent five polls there have shown Clinton with leads of 8, 12, 10, 9, and 4 points, respectively, for an average Clinton lead of 8.6 points. The Keystone State isn't looking much like a swing state. Finally, the only bit of good-ish news is that Clinton's lead in Wisconsin is only 4 points. All in all, not a good day for Trump. And these polls were largely taken before The Tape was made public.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, Clinton is now ahead in all the blue wall states, and all the swing states except Iowa. But as (over)compensation, she now leads in Arizona, which has five more electoral votes than Iowa. Take a look at the big picture (or use the "Electoral vote graphs" link to the left of the map). The past few weeks have not been kind to Donald Trump. There you can see how that looks graphically. (V)

State Clinton Trump Johnson Start End Pollster
Alaska 31% 36% 18% Sep 28 Oct 02 Alaska Survey Research
Florida 45% 42% 5% Oct 03 Oct 05 Marist Coll.
Ohio 46% 42% 5% Oct 05 Oct 07 YouGov
Pennsylvania 48% 40% 4% Oct 05 Oct 07 YouGov
Pennsylvania 49% 37% 6% Oct 03 Oct 06 Marist Coll.
Wisconsin 43% 39% 4% Oct 05 Oct 07 YouGov

Today's Senate Polls

The most noteworthy item here today is that according to YouGov, Russ Feingold is ahead by only 2 points in Wisconsin. Other polls have shown him with much bigger leads. One has to wonder if the sample had too many Republicans. If so, then the presidential poll (above) may also be suspect. (V)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Florida Patrick Murphy 46% Marco Rubio* 48% Oct 03 Oct 05 Marist Coll.
Ohio Ted Strickland 38% Rob Portman* 49% Oct 05 Oct 07 YouGov
Pennsylvania Katie McGinty 42% Pat Toomey* 42% Oct 05 Oct 07 YouGov
Pennsylvania Katie McGinty 48% Pat Toomey* 44% Oct 03 Oct 06 Marist Coll.
Wisconsin Russ Feingold 45% Ron Johnson* 43% Oct 05 Oct 07 YouGov

* Denotes incumbent

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Oct09 Many Republicans Want Trump to Drop Out, but He Says Zero Chance of That
Oct09 Did Trump Just Blow the Election?
Oct09 Could We Have a President Pence?
Oct09 Trump and Clinton Face Off in the Second Debate Tonight
Oct09 Email Leaks Give Glimpse of How Clinton's Campaign Works
Oct09 Pence Supposedly Upset over Trump's Remarks on Tape
Oct09 About Candidate Pence...
Oct09 At Least One Bettor Is Convinced the Election is Over
Oct08 Trump Was Recorded in 2005 Saying Gross Things about Women
Oct08 Portions of Clinton's Wall Street Speeches Appear to Have Been Leaked
Oct08 Trump Says the Border Patrol Is Letting Undocumented Immigrants in to Vote
Oct08 Trump Cratering with Independent Voters
Oct08 Planned Parenthood Planning $30 Million Effort Targeting Millennials
Oct08 If Trump Loses, Republicans Will Not Be Able to Come Together Easily
Oct08 Giuliani's Daughter Is a Strong Clinton Supporter
Oct07 Trump Abandons the Rust Belt, Aims at the West
Oct07 Clinton's Debate Performance Made Supporters More Enthusiastic
Oct07 Trump: I Was Being an Entertainer When I Insulted Women
Oct07 Trump Preps for Debate...Maybe
Oct07 What Trump Needs To Do in Sunday's Debate
Oct07 Clinton Readies a Final Push
Oct07 Six-year-old Wants to Ask a Question at the Town Hall Debate
Oct07 Hurricane Matthew Could Help Trump
Oct07 How Millennials Describe the Candidates
Oct07 Not All Evangelicals are For Trump
Oct07 Obama's Approval Rating Reaches New High
Oct07 We Are in the Age of the Insta-Ad
Oct07 It's a Civil War at Fox News
Oct06 Vice-Presidential Debate Postmortem
Oct06 Kaine May Have Lost the Debate, but Winning Was Never His Goal
Oct06 You Don't Win the Second Debate by Relitigating the First One
Oct06 Clinton Up 10 Points in National Poll
Oct06 Could the October Surprise Be Trump's 2015 Tax Return?
Oct06 Trump Often Donated to Attorneys General Investigating Him
Oct06 Dope Is on the Ballot All over the Country
Oct06 Vice-Presidential Debate Postmortem
Oct06 Kaine May Have Lost the Debare, but Winning Was Never His Goal
Oct06 You Don't Win the Second Debate by Relitigating the First One
Oct06 Clinton Up 10 Points in National Poll
Oct06 Could the October Surprise Be Trump's 2015 Tax Return?
Oct06 Trump Often Donated to Attorneys General Investigating Him
Oct06 Dope Is on the Ballot All over the Country
Oct05 Vice-Presidential Debate a Tense Affair
Oct05 GOP Website Gives Pence the Win--a Bit Early
Oct05 Politico Insiders: My Team Won
Oct05 Changes in the Swing States of the Past 2 Weeks
Oct05 Trump's Accountant Says He, Not Trump, Was the Genius
Oct05 Poll: Not Paying Taxes is Selfish
Oct05 Candidates' Strategies Differ on Early Voting
Oct05 Trump May Have Illegally Used His Foundation to Bootstrap His Campaign