By Aaron Kall
Given the sky-high expectations and intense pressure, Hillary Clinton may have delivered her best debate performance to date on Wednesday night in Las Vegas. She came to the debate armed to the nines with a binder full of opposition research that kept Donald Trump on the ropes all night.
Scientific polls from CNN/ORC, NBC News/Survey Monkey, and Politico/Morning Consult all revealed Clinton as the debate winner by margins between 9 and 17 points. This is certainly a more narrow victory spread compared to the first two debates, but Clinton’s stalwart performance was especially impressive given that Trump needed to score a knockout punch to alter the trajectory of the election.
Approximately 72 million people watched the final debate and there are no remaining events during the final two-and-a-half weeks of the race that will attract an audience anywhere near that size. Absent an unforeseen development like a major terrorist attack or explosive WikiLeaks revelation, Clinton appears on a glide path to victory according to the latest national and swing state polls. The race was essentially tied when the candidates squared off for the first time in New York on September 26th. Clinton’s steadfast and methodical preparation helped deliver a trio of debate victories that have cleared a direct path to the presidency.
After receiving some criticism for being passive and letting Trump off the hook several times during the St. Louis town-hall debate, Clinton came prepared and ready for battle in Las Vegas. Trump performed admirably early in the evening, but was noticeably rattled after Clinton said Russian President Vladimir Putin would “rather have a puppet as president of the United States”. Trump made a play for the support of disaffected Bernie Sanders voters, but Clinton was ready with a solid retort. She pointed out Sanders was a surrogate for her campaign and had previously referred to Trump as “the most dangerous person to run for president in the modern history of America”.
Clinton’s most effective zinger during the debate occurred in response to Trump bragging about his beautiful hotel in Las Vegas. She immediately interjected and pointed out this particular Trump property was constructed using Chinese steel. Newsweek had broken this story weeks earlier and Clinton was deftly able to turn a perceived Trump attribute into a political punch line. Her constant well-researched barbs prevented Trump from finding his comfort level on the Las Vegas debate stage and garnering any sustained momentum. Clinton was intimately familiar with Trump’s positions and statements during previous debates and on the campaign trail. Her performance on Wednesday night was symptomatic of relentless debate preparation conducted with an all-star team of advisers during the last several months.
The benefit of Clinton’s full arsenal of intensive debate preparation was certainly on full display in Las Vegas, but its origins go back much further. After a comprehensive national search, longtime aide Philippe Reines was selected to play the integral role of Trump stand-in. Keenly aware of Clinton’s vulnerabilities and repeatedly, Reines pushed her buttons on uncomfortable subjects during practice sessions. Conversely, Trump rejected the overtures of radio talk show host Laura Ingraham to emulate the role of Clinton. He preferred informal practice that was unscripted and had paid dividends for his campaign during in the primary debates. A well-seasoned veteran of over 40 political debates, Clinton knew firsthand the value of practice and sacrificed time away from the campaign trail and donor circuit to ensure the most optimal performance. Her calendar was clear for days prior to each debate and Clinton participated in numerous full-length mock debates. Several of these even occurred from 9-10:30 p.m. to mimic the exact conditions of the three debates. This persistence paid dividends, as Clinton displayed a tremendous amount of stamina to deliver a trio of performances that were both balanced and well-received.
Clinton’s hard work and dogged debate preparation clearly was the right choice and paid off in spades for the campaign. Trump actually did take notice of his opponent’s efforts and even worked harder in advance of the final two debates. He got better in each contest, but was no match for the well-oiled Clinton machine and their tactics. Future presidential candidates would be wise to keep the lessons from the 2016 election cycle in mind and begin thinking about their debate preparations well in advance of 2020. They will most likely be doing battle with a formidable incumbent that takes practice very seriously and leaves nothing to chance.
Aaron Kall is Director of Debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of “Debating The Donald”