The ugliest presidential debate in the country’s history began with the two candidates taking the stage without shaking hands and will be remembered for Donald Trump’s threat to put Hillary Clinton in jail, his statement that she has “hate in her heart” and by his stunning decision to put four women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse in the front row.
But the sad spectacle did more to cement the broader 2016 campaign in the annals as a low point for the nation’s political discourse and civility than to alter a race between the two most unpopular nominees ever that is hardening as it enters the final stretch.
With 29 days left, Clinton is a heavy, heavy favorite to become the country’s first woman president. But she did not deliver a final death blow to her reeling opponent, who has been hemorrhaging Republican support after Friday’s publication of video in which he bragged about getting away with sexual assault.
“I don’t see that anything changed tonight,” said Curt Anderson, a GOP strategist in Washington. “In fact, Clinton really botched the debate in that she had a chance to put him away with a good performance. The past few days have revealed Trump’s lack of character for all to see, and tonight this debate is a reminder of just how lousy a candidate Clinton is.”
Trump, who has effectively squandered his chance of becoming president due to a bumbling, gaffe-marred two-week interim between the first debate and Sunday’s showdown in St. Louis, was the aggressor for much of the debate. But his marginally successful attacks over Obamacare and Clinton’s email controversy were aimed mainly at his own base, as were his hot-tempered hyperbole and gruff stage presence—he actually seemed to stalk Clinton, standing behind her, scowling as she answered questions posed by undecided voters in a town hall-style setting. Interim DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile joked in the spin room afterward that Trump “got in his 10,000 steps. All he did was pace and pace and pace and pace.”
“Trump might have shored up the base but it’s a temporary fix,” said Reed Galen, a GOP consultant based in California. “The audio tape will continue to swirl and the congressional Republicans are in full lifeboat mode. Forty-five minutes of not acting like an insane person (much) will not pull his foundering campaign off the rocks.”
Despite a slightly improved, more aggressive debate performance by Trump, a CNN/ORC poll of debate watchers concluded that 57 percent thought Clinton to have won, compared with 34 percent saying Trump. “A lot of people probably decided, after what they heard this weekend, that they couldn’t vote for him,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s campaign spokeswoman. “We thought the timing of the debate was a gift for Hillary Clinton because she was able to speak to those voters directly, to say we understand they may be looking to her anew.”
That Trump is still appealing to an angry conservative base at this late stage of the election may be the most glaring indication of the hard ceiling on his overall support and, as a result, where this race stands. Clinton’s national lead over Trump has stretched to five points, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, and she is surging past him in swing states like Florida and North Carolina that had been more competitive just weeks ago—all as a result of her winning over undecided voters and some Republican women.
These polls don’t take into account the public’s reaction to the 2005 videotape in which he bragged that his celebrity enables him to “grab [women] by the pussy.” But private polling is already showing a devastating effect on Trump and down-ballot Republicans, which is driving much of the fallout with dozens of GOP elected officials un-endorsing Trump over the weekend and the possibility of more to come with a congressional GOP conference call set for Monday morning.
“Private polling in other races has sent the party into absolute panic mode,” said Steve Schmidt, the GOP strategist who guided John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “The numbers are falling through the floor in other races in the country and it’s looking more and more like we’re going to have not just a Democrat in the White House but a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.”
“All of these Republicans that were accommodationists—Vichy Republicans in an occupied Republican party—they were doing that because they were careerists who put their career over their willingness to speak truth to power,” Schmidt said. “Now that they see the ship is going down, they're not going to try to get off to save themselves but it’s probably too late.”
Trump’s scorched earth approach, as evidenced by a pre-debate press conference featuring four women claiming to be sexual abuse victims of Bill Clinton and his decision to seat them in the front row, wasn’t the only sign of a desperate campaign’s bunker mentality. Trump’s animosity toward the Republicans who abandoned him over the weekend—he tweeted early Sunday that they are “pathetic” and would likely lose as a result—illustrated a return to the same anti-establishment, us against the world mentality he harnessed during a contentious primary.
And the recriminations from his surrogates continued after the debate had ended with Newt Gingrich telling Fox News’ Sean Hannity that the Republicans who disavowed Trump in the last 72 hours “have a lot of egg on their face because the guy who showed up in the debate tonight is clearly the Republican nominee and clearly has earned being the Republican nominee. It’s kind of crazy for somebody to suggest dumping him at this point and I would hope that a lot of those who panicked over the weekend would reconsider their position.”
Even Trump’s own campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, in pushing back at the idea of a campaign in turmoil, let it slip that her own future at the helm is no guarantee over the final 29 days of the campaign when questioned in the spin room after the debate by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.
“I’m in it until the bitter end, unless,” Conway said, trailing off.
The Trump video is certain to be a staple of Clinton's closing argument and broader campaign coverage over the final weeks of this race. Priorities USA, the super PAC backing Clinton, has already cut a new television ad juxtaposing Trump's statement Sunday night that he "has great respect for women" with several audio clips of him demeaning and objectifying women, including his statement earlier this month about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado's weight gain being "a problem" and part of the decade-old video uncovered Friday in which Trump recalls hitting on a married women, saying, "I moved on her like a bitch."
Pressed early in the debate about the comments caught on tape, Trump expressed regret and apologized for what he dismissed as “locker room talk.” Clinton, who had not commented over the weekend as Trump’s campaign careened deeper into chaos, told voters that, in her view, “It’s clear to anyone who’s heard it that it’s exactly who he is.”
But Trump did himself few favors with women voters with his aggressive attacks on Clinton, on moderator Martha Raddatz and the controversial decision to attack his opponent for her husband’s alleged—and widely disputed—sexual indiscretions.
“He can’t recover from saying it’s okay to grab women if you are a star,” one Republican source, speaking privately, said. “He essentially defined the very rape culture young people have been fighting on campuses across America. Mothers and millennials will never come back to him (not that he ever really had them).”
In the spin room, Trump’s team was far more upbeat than following the first debate in New York two weeks ago. But Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s top surrogates, seemed to acknowledge that the performance can mostly be viewed as a victory of sorts because expectations had dropped so low after the first debate and the weekend’s scandal that saw Trump withdraw into the seclusion of his private residence some 65 stories high in Trump Tower.
“Donald Trump’s only been in this, what, 14 months?” Sessions said. “She’s been in this at the right hand of the president for eight years.”
“Who could think he’d be able to perform at such a level after all that’s been happening?” Sessions mused. “He showed courage. He showed strength. I think it’s the kind of thing people are looking for.”
But most Republicans, recognizing the dismal state of their party and their fading electoral chances in November, took little joy in Trump finally focusing the audience on some of Clinton’s many vulnerabilities, not just his own.
“It was a depressing debate for American voters,” said Austin Barbour, a GOP strategist in Mississippi. “We can’t miss the forest for the trees.”
Katie Glueck and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.