A few hours ago, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton squared off for the third and final time. We expected fireworks, insults, and controversy. To that end, neither candidate disappointed. Kudos to Chris Wallace of Fox News for conducting the cleanest debate of the three. On the heels of the Great Debate, we will frame the presidential election by addressing four questions. Who won? What’s next? What does Clinton need to do to win? What does Trump need to do to win?
1. Who won?
Over the next few days, dozens of polls will be taken to answer this question. So I can only offer my view. And having watched every second of every debate, including the VP debate, it seems last night’s winner is clear. The winner was Donald Trump. I say this for four reasons.
First, Trump stayed on offense. That is where he has failed in the past. But for the first (and only) time, he kept Clinton on defense most of the night. And there is an old adage in politics that says, “When you’re playing defense, you’re losing.”
Second, Trump stayed calm and presidential. For him, that’s a win. That is what his supporters have been wanting to see all along. Clinton looked calm and presidential, also. But Trump wins on this front, because the expectations were so low.
Third, Trump came in with some facts. In the first two debates, he was not prepared. As always, Clinton was very prepared. But by focusing on partial birth abortion, the Clinton Foundation shortcomings, and Russia, Trump scored a lot of points.
Fourth, “the smirk” was back. Clinton did a masterful job pivoting away from subjects that favor her opponent. But “the smirk” was back. By laughing and smirking throughout Trump’s comments, she came across as superior. That isn’t attractive in a presidential candidate.
2. What’s next?
The calendar says we have just 19 days until the election. Nothing happened last night that will move the polls more than a few points. The most recent Real Clear Politics average puts Clinton up by six points. For the next 19 days, expect more insults and bravado. Both candidates will spend a lot of time in key swing states. If you don’t like politics, and if you don’t like either candidate, don’t spend the next 19 days in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Michigan. And if you can’t get out of those states, keep your TV tuned into the Weather Channel. Otherwise, you will see wall-to-wall coverage of both campaigns and thousands of blistering ads from both parties. It will be an all-out sprint to the finish. Then, when it’s all over, we can all take a hot shower.
3. What does Clinton need to do to win?
Mrs. Clinton needs to have no unforced errors. Expect her to play it safe and try to avoid controversy. But Clinton could make the mistake of taking the election for granted. When the final polls come in just days before the election, expect them to overestimate her support by two points. I say that because Trump’s supporters are more motivated, and are therefore more likely to go to the polls. But it would be unprecedented in modern times for a candidate to lose a six-point lead in the last three weeks before the election. And I don’t think enough happened last night to cut deeply into her lead. In short, expect Clinton to play it safe for the last 19 days.
4. What does Trump need to do to win?
What Trump should do and what Trump will do are two different things. What he should do is hammer just a few themes: Hillary’s emails, Benghazi, her support for partial birth abortion, and the failures of the past eight years. But it is more likely that he will focus on Bill Clinton’s past, media bias, and his past accusers. The best thing Trump can do for the next 19 days is to get up every morning and ask Rudy Giuliani, “What should I talk about today?” If he does that, he has a puncher’s chance. If he goes with his own political instinct, he’s done.
The old Major League shortstop from the Dominican Republic, Andujar Cedeno, once said, “In America, two words say it all – ‘You never know!'” With this election, and especially with Donald Trump, the same “two” words certainly apply – You never know.
The next 19 days will be interesting.