Debate Failed to Move the Needle in Trump’s Favor

Maybe we should have stopped at two candidate showdowns

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton squares off with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the third presidential debate in Las Vegas. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton squares off with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the third presidential debate in Las Vegas. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Posted October 20, 2016 at 12:23am

In 1980, there was only one debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. I hereby propose we pledge today to hold just one debate in 2020.

OK. I’d settle for two.

My take on this final debate is rather anticlimactic: Despite some fireworks, it changes nothing. Hillary Clinton won. But even a tie would have cemented her status as the (very) likely next president.

Maybe we put too much hope in these debates? In recent years, the hidden camera has replaced the podium as the catalyst for game-changing moments. Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe was probably much more damaging than what has infamously come to be known as the “Candy Crowley debate.” And Donald Trump’s disgraceful “Access Hollywood” comments might just be remembered more than anything else he has said in any of the debates.

Or maybe not.

We might have witnessed a throwback to a bygone era. When asked if he would accept the election results, Trump refused to commit, saying only that he would keep us “in suspense.” If this isn’t the defining moment of the election, it is most likely going to be a consequential moment that lingers in the minds of the voters who tuned in — it will be the last thing we recall from the debates.

Once again, it didn’t have to be this way. Compared with past debates, Trump appeared more subdued. The caveat here is that we are talking about Donald Trump — so the bar is necessarily low.

[Somebody Had to Win. This Time It Was Clinton]

Just as he needed to do, Trump repeatedly pointed out that Clinton hasn’t been able to change things during her thirty years of political involvement. In a country where 70 percent of Americans aren’t happy with the direction of the nation, highlighting Clinton’s status as a career politician was a crafty move. Ask yourself this: What would have happened had Trump been able to prosecute this case in a consistent and disciplined manner throughout this campaign?

We also got an answer to a question that has been plaguing me for some time now. If anyone was wondering why so many evangelicals were supporting Trump, despite his numerous flaws, the first few minutes of this third debate provided an obvious explanation.

I’m speaking, of course, about Clinton’s pledge to support activist Supreme Court justices who will advance liberal special interest policies, as well as her pro-abortion rights position. Granted, we might have intellectually comprehended that these issues were driving social conservative leaders to Trump’s corner, but witnessing this rather graphic discussion about partial-birth abortion really drove the point home.

On the negative side, Trump once again had to revisit and answer for things he has said and allegedly done to women. And, although Trump and Clinton took turns scoring points with zingers (they accused one another of being Putin’s “puppet”), I feel sure that Trump’s aggressive demeanor toward Clinton might have repulsed the very cohort of “gettable” voters Trump most needs to win over — college-educated Republican women. Had it not been for Trump’s refusal to say he would accept defeat, we might be more focused on his referring to Clinton as a “nasty woman.”

Oh yeah, and he also managed to attack Reagan on trade. But who’s counting?

The thing to know about debates is that nobody scores the 90 minutes and then adds up the points. One big soundbite overshadows lots of little points and logical arguments. And the big moment of this debate was Trump’s refusal to say he would graciously concede.

But again, in terms of the election results, none of this matters. The only way this debate could have moved the needle would have been if Trump had scored an unequivocal knockout.

And since that didn’t happen, all that matters is that this debate season is (mercifully) over.

[For Trump, Getting Even Is More Important Than Getting Ahead]

Let’s just be honest. We are all tired and ready for this carnival ride to end. The first debate was greeted with excitement. By the third debate, most people I know would have much preferred watching the Cubs play. Or going to bed (perhaps until the election is over).

And it seems that this demoralized attitude transcends those of us who cover elections for a living. An uneasy American people stand with us in our apathetic corner. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness isn’t just a killer album by The Smashing Pumpkins — it could describe the emotional state of American voters at the end of a brutal election cycle.

It might just be that three debates are too many debates. Like the Godfather franchise, maybe we should’ve stopped at two.

Then again, sometimes the third time is — while not terrific — at least entertaining. In Rocky III, there’s a scene where Rocky Balboa and Thunder Lips (Hulk Hogan) hold an exhibition charity match that turns into a melee. At the end of the fight, the announcer can be heard saying, “See you all next year. Thank God.”

My next debate column will likely not come out for another four years.

Thank God.

Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.