September 27, 2016, by Charlotte Anscombe

The Great Debate – Professor Todd Landman reviews last night’s battle between Clinton and Trump

This week is one of the most awaited in the calendar for the US presidential campaign. The primaries are over and have produced the two main candidates and their running mates, the conventions have sought to solidify support and unify the messages for each party, and the summer months have been spent on the campaign trail preparing for the final push to the finish line on 8 November 2016.

Last night saw the first of three debates between the two main candidates: Donald Trump for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. Both candidates are not without controversy and both are the least favourable candidates ever to run for President of the United States of America.

For poll watchers like me, the last few months have seen a roller coaster of popular attitudes that at times has looked as if Clinton had it in the bag (e.g. just after the Democratic Convention) to a neck and neck contest this week that will only become more fierce as the 8 November election date approaches. Clinton had up to a 10% lead over Trump in the weeks after her convention, but that lead has now narrowed to only a few points, depending on the poll, and is certainly within a 3% margin of error. The probability of a Clinton win, according to the celebrated Five Thirty Eight site has gone from a high of 89.2% in mid August to 54.8% this week.

The real contest, however, is always for the Electoral College votes, which are won on a ‘first past the post’ electoral system at state level. The magic number for both candidates is 270 Electoral College votes, the threshold required to win the presidency. As the contest stands, Trump has made major gains in some of the key swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which he will need to win in order to take the White House.

Head to head

The debates provide the first opportunity for the candidates to go head to head on key issues facing the nation, which include immigration, healthcare, economic performance, security, and foreign policy. This year, the stakes could not be higher, as Trump has repeatedly referred to his opponent as ‘Crooked Hillary’ while Clinton has questioned Trump’s fitness to be the president and referred to his core supporters as ‘a basket of deplorables’.

Like the conventions this summer, the debates should be seen as an opportunity for both candidates to reach out beyond their core supporters to be more inclusive and to build a coalition large enough to garner enough electoral votes. They are also an opportunity for both candidates to look presidential.

My own verdict on the debate is that Trump was better at repeating the same theme (America in decline and how he was going to make it great again), but was ineffective at appealing beyond his core base of support, while Clinton was in command of the issues, but did not provide an overarching vision for an America under her Presidency.

The debate was moderated by NBC Anchor Lester Holt, hosted by Hofstra University in New York, and was structured into three main sections: (1) Achieving Prosperity, (2) America’s Direction, and (3) Securing America. The audience was under strict instructions not to applaud, shout, or otherwise react to what each of the speakers said. On a few occasions, these rules were not followed, but the debate as a whole was respectful and well-managed.

‘Trumped up’

The first section of the debate on achieving prosperity focussed on jobs and income inequality, and how each candidate planned on providing the basis for economic progress. Trump focussed on job losses in manufacturing, trade deals (such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA), and the predatory power of other countries in providing cheap labour and cheap products. His solution is to pass a large corporation tax cut from 35% to 15% combined with new trade tariffs to encourage corporations to invest in the US and to create jobs, while protecting the domestic economy from cheap imports.

Clinton pledged to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to fuel new job growth in innovative technologies, infrastructure projects, and renewable energy projects such as solar power and a new electrical grid for the country. She was less clear on trade deals and did not defend well her vacillating position on the Trans Pacific Partnership, but she was scathing of Trump’s tax plans, which she described as ‘Trumped Up and Trickle Down’ in a direct reference to the tax policies of the Reagan Administration.

She landed a second blow on Trump by asking why he has not yet released his tax returns, something all candidates have done for many years. Trump’s riposte was to ask why she did not release 30,000 emails from her private server, to which she offered a modest apology, but not an explanation nor an offer of release them. In turn, he said that one could learn more from his financial disclosures than his tax returns and almost bragged that he was smart to have avoided paying tax.

The second section of the debate was Trump’s weakest moment, as it was framed around race relations in America, including police violence (with reference to the shootings last week in Tulsa and Charlotte), the ‘birther’ campaign against President Obama that Trump led for five years, and discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Racial discrimination claims

Clinton responded with a policy package not dissimilar to the Presidential Task Force on police reform that included rebuilding trust, police reform and training, and gun control measures to address the gun epidemic and the plague of violence. Trump focussed on law and order, the use of ‘stop and frisk’ by police (which Clinton argued was deemed unconstitutional and ineffective), and a focus on illegal immigrants with access to guns.

In his attempt to show empathy for minority communities under a siege of violence (with particular reference to Obama’s home town of Chicago), Trump ended up painting a dire and negative picture of black America that will be unlikely to garner him any more black votes.

Clinton raised the issue of Federal prosecution against Trump in the early 1970s for racial discrimination in his New York buildings, to which he responded ‘we emerged from those prosecutions with no admission of guilt.’ He then went on to describe a club he built in Palm Beach Florida that was welcoming to ethnic minorities; an example that fell flat and that will no doubt cause a great stir in this heated issue area.

In a rare moment of agreement, both Trump and Clinton argued that terrorists on ‘no fly’ lists should be prohibited from obtaining guns, something the National Rifle Association, America’s strongest gun advocacy group that also endorses Trump, vehemently opposes. But his focus remained on strengthening law and order, while hers was on reforming the police, the justice system, and the implicit biases that lead to the disproportionate treatment of ethnic minority communities.


The debate around the ‘birther’ campaign that Trump led focussed on his claim that only he succeeded in getting Obama to produce his birth certificate in 2011, but he was unable to account for why he continued to make it an issue until a few weeks ago when he declared that the President is actually an American citizen. He attempted to suggest that the whole issue began when Clinton’s campaign aids in 2008 were researching into Obama’s background in Kenya, and that he was one who solved the problem.

The final section of the debate on Securing America started with cyber security and the recent hacking revelations on the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Both candidates acknowledged that cyber security was a huge issue, but Clinton hit back hard with the claim that ‘Donald publicly invited Putin to hack Americans’ in reference to his off hand remark at press conference asking the Russians to find her missing emails.

Beyond cyber security, the two sparred on issues of foreign policy, with Clinton referencing her diplomatic experience (and stamina required to be Secretary of State) and detailed explanations of the NATO Treaty obligations and other mutual commitments, while Trump argued that many countries benefitted from US protection around the world without paying their fair share.

The much-anticipated clash was in the end a measured and well-mannered affair, which saw an increasingly incoherent Trump and a less than inspiring Clinton. There are two more debates before the election, where Trump needs to do his homework and Clinton needs to find more passion, vision, and a simpler message of hope for America

Professor Todd Landman will be delivering a public lecture entitled ‘Trump, Clinton and the Future of the United States of America’ in the School of Politics and International Relations on 29 September at 4:30 in Room B63 in the Law and Social Sciences Building on University Park. The lecture will be recorded.

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