Swing-state Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief, convinced that embattled GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump successfully took the fight to Hillary Clinton in Sunday night’s acrimonious town-hall debate.
The battleground-state activists, strategists and operatives who make up The POLITICO Caucus mostly saw the second debate at Washington University in St. Louis through their own partisan lens: Three quarters of GOP insiders said Trump did the better job on Sunday night, but more than nine-in-10 Democrats said Clinton was the winner.
That extended to other aspects of the night: Republicans thought Trump’s attacks on Clinton’s leaked speeches were effective, but Democrats thought Clinton parried them well. Democrats thought Trump’s pre-debate press statement with women who have accused Bill Clinton of assaulting or harassing them was an appalling, self-destructive stunt, but a majority of Republicans thought it was a shrewd decision.
Most importantly, Republicans think Trump stopped the bleeding — after two weeks of sliding poll numbers and a weekend of abandonment from GOP officials after video emerged of Trump coarsely describing groping women. Democrats, on the other hand, expect Trump to continue to slip in the polls after Sunday night, especially after calling for Clinton to be jailed for her use of a private email account while secretary of state.
As for the debate, Trump’s on-stage performance was well-received by most Republicans — including some who have been skeptical of his political abilities and qualifications.
“I'm shocked, but he won the debate,” said an Iowa Republican who, like all insiders, completed the survey anonymously. “He had her on her heels throughout.”
“Donald Trump did what he had to do,” a Michigan Republican added. “He laid out a Chris Christie, New Hampshire-style indictment of Hillary Clinton in the first 30 minutes when the most eyeballs were watching and before the early deadline for Monday's newspapers.”
Even some Republicans who think the race is already lost for Trump thought he had the better night.
“Hillary took this debate for granted,” an Ohio Republican said. “Trump was far more effective. But his performance will not move any voters in his favor. His ceiling and his floor is now around the same number. He cannot win.”
“He is still standing — he will still lose, but not tonight,” a New Hampshire Republican added. “She continues to underwhelm.”
For the roughly quarter of Republicans who said Clinton was the winner, many said Trump had a decent night — but that it won’t be enough to make him competitive.
“After a disastrous couple of weeks, Trump had to knock it out of the park,” a Colorado Republican said. “While he probably stopped the bleeding with the base, he didn't pick up any new votes.”
That’s how the vast majority of Democratic insiders saw it, too: 92 percent of Democratic insiders said Clinton did a better job.
“Trump is only talking to his base,” said an Iowa Democrat. “He's not gaining voters. Clinton is.”
Trump “was lying, rambling, and creepily looming behind her,” a Wisconsin Democrat added.
“While he did succeed in making some points,” a New Hampshire Democrat conceded, “his saying he would put her in jail and that she had hate in her heart was so over the top as to undercut any points he made.”
The evening began not with the debate, but with an impromptu photo op with Trump and a number of women who say Bill Clinton harassed or assaulted them, and another woman whose alleged rapist was represented by Hillary Clinton in court.
The vast majority of Democratic insiders — 94 percent — said it wasn’t a smart strategic decision to bring those issues to light. But more Republicans said it was a smart decision (56 percent) than said it wasn’t.
“What better way to show the American public who they might potentially usher into the White House than by telling the world once again, the sordid actions of the Bill Clinton who was impeached and disbarred because of his sexual escapades?” a Colorado Republican asked. “Trump was also able to talk about Hillary aiding and abetting the destruction of these women's lives, and talk about Hillary also destroying the life of a young rape victim in the process of defending the man who raped her, laughing about it.”
“The look on Bill Clinton's face proved the tactic had its effect,” added a Virginia Republican.
But other Republicans — even those who scored the debate for Trump — thought it was foolish and crass.
“It was an unnecessary distraction and does not explain or excuse his behavior,” said a Michigan Republican.
“‘Bill’s a louse too,’ is not the moral high ground,” a Virginia Republican added. “It was embarrassing.”
Democrats called it a stunt that will alienate the voters to whom Trump needs to appeal to come back and win.
“Women and college educated voters will hate it,” a Nevada Democrat said.
But one Democrat called it a “deft move,” comparing those women to “the cousin in Godfather II who is flown over from Sicily and brought in to the congressional hearing and whose mere presence has a chastening effect.”
As for Trump’s more substantive attacks on Clinton — especially his references to the speeches she gave to financial institutions — 74 percent of Republicans said they took a toll on the Democrat, but 86 percent of Democrats said Clinton effectively parried them away.
“Hillary seemed rattled tonight,” a Florida Republican said. “She was unable to really answer her leaked speeches to financial institutions where she defended duplicitous behavior and keeping the public unaware of your true intentions.”
A Virginia Republican alluded to Clinton’s defense — that she was referring to the movie “Lincoln” — adding simply: “Abraham Lincoln. Really?”
Ultimately, seven-in-10 Republicans said Trump’s performance will cauterize the wound for the GOP nominee after weeks of falling poll numbers and 48 hours of calls for Trump to drop out of the race.
“He took a hit and punched back,” an Ohio Republican said. “It's shameless, but he bounced back tonight. It will still probably be too little, too late.”
“It stopped the bleeding,” a Nevada Republican added, “but the damage has been done.”
These are the members of The POLITICO Caucus, not all of whom participated in this survey:
Colorado: Ryan Call, Laura Carno, Matt Chandler, Will Coyne, Adam Eichberg, Mark Ferrandino, Cole Finegan, Michael Fortney, Andrew Freedman, Ted Harvey, Craig Hughes, Owen Loftus, Pete Maysmith, Frank McNulty, Karen Middleton, Christopher Murray, BJ Nikkel, Josh Penry, Rick Ridder, Alan Salazar, Janice Sinden, Pat Steadman, Pat Waak, Steve Welchert, Taylor West, Roxane White, Rob Witwer
Florida: Fernand Amandi, Scott Arceneaux, JP Austin, Tim Baker, Dennis K. Baxley, Slater Bayliss, Dave Beattie, Wayne Bertsch, Ron Book, Pamela Burch Fort, Jose Calderon, Kevin Cate, Kelly Cohen, Gus Corbella, Brian Crowley, Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, Justin Day, Judith Diaz, Nelson Diaz, John Dowless, Ryan Duffy, Jessica Ehrlich, Joe Falk, Alia Faraj-Johnson, Mark Ferrulo, Damien Filer, Marty Fiorentino, Rich Heffley, Nick Iarossi, David Johnson, Eric Johnson, Marian Johnson, Eric Jotkoff, Chris Korge, Jackie Lee, Susan MacManus, Beth Matuga, Fred Menachem, Jon Mills, Joe Mobley, Ben Pollara, Andrea Reilly, Steve Schale, April Schiff, Max Steele, Roger Stone, Richard Swann, Kevin Sweeny, Christian Ulvert, Steve Vancore, Ashley Walker, Andrew Weinstein, Andrew Wiggins, Ryan Wiggins, Rick Wilson
Iowa: Tim Albrecht, Brad Anderson, Rob Barron, Jeff Boeyink, Bonnie Campbell, Dave Caris, Sam Clovis, Jerry Crawford, Sara Craig, John Davis, Steve Deace, John Deeth, Derek Eadon, Ed Failor Jr., Karen Fesler, David Fischer, Ben Foecke, Doug Gross, Steve Grubbs, Tim Hagle, Bob Haus, Joe Henry, Drew Ivers, Jill June, Lori Jungling, Jeff Kaufmann, Brian Kennedy, Jake Ketzner, David Kochel, Chris Larimer, Chuck Larson, Jill Latham, Jeff Link, Dave Loebsack, Mark Lucas, Liz Mathis, Jan Michelson, Chad Olsen, David Oman, Matt Paul, Marlys Popma, Troy Price, Christopher Rants, Kim Reem, Craig Robinson, Sam Roecker, David Roederer, Nick Ryan, Tamara Scott, Joni Scotter, Karen Slifka, John Smith, AJ Spiker, Norm Sterzenbach, John Stineman, Matt Strawn, Charlie Szold, Phil Valenziano, Jessica Vanden Berg, Nate Willems, Eric Woolson, Grant Young
Michigan: Jill Alper, Saul Anuzis, Andrea Bitely, Lori Carpentier, Howard Edelson, Jordan Gehrke, Steve Hood, Darwin Jiles Jr., Joe Lehman, Dennis Lennox, Katie Packer, Ronna Romney McDaniel, John Truscott, Stephanie White, John Yob
Nevada: Mac Abrams, Greg Bailor, Barbara Buckley, Yvanna Cancela, Bob Cavazos, Linda Cavazos, Jim DeGraffenreid, Andrew Diss, Peter Ernaut, Ryan Erwin, Chip Evans, Jay Gerstema, Oscar Goodman, Ryan Hamilton, Dan Hart, Pat Hickey, Zach Hudson, Jeremy Hughes, Megan Jones, Lindsey Jydstrup, Adam Khan, Peter Koltak, Roberta Lange, Sam Liberman, Laura Martin, Michael McDonald, Chuck Muth, Erven Nelson, Kristen Orthman, Neal Patel, Nick Phillips, Jon Ralston, Andres Ramires, Emmy Ruiz, Scott Scheid, Mike Slanker, James Smack, Paul Smith, Jack St. Martin, Mari St. Martin, Daniel Stewart, Brendan Summers, Riley Sutton, Robert Uithoven, Michelle White, Ed Williams, Heidi Wixom
New Hampshire: Charlie Arlinghaus, Arnie Arnesen, Patrick Arnold, Rich Ashooh, Dean Barker, Juliana Bergeron, D.J. Bettencourt, Michael Biundo, Ray Buckley, Peter Burling, Jamie Burnett, Debby Butler, Dave Carney, Jackie Cilley, Catherine Corkery, Fergus Cullen, Lou D’Allesandro, James Demers, Mike Dennehy, Sean Downey, Steve Duprey, JoAnn Fenton, Jennifer Frizzell, Martha Fuller Clark, Amanda Grady Sexton, Jack Heath, Gary Hirshberg, Jennifer Horn, Peter Kavanaugh, Joe Keefe, Rich Killion, Harrell Kirstein, Sylvia Larsen, Joel Maiola, Kate Malloy Corriveau, Maureen Manning, Steve Marchand, Tory Mazzola, Jim Merrill, Jayne Millerick, Claira Monier, Greg Moore, Matt Mowers, Terie Norelli, Chris Pappas, Liz Purdy, Tom Rath, Colin Reed, Jim Rubens, Andy Sanborn, Dante Scala, William Shaheen, Stefany Shaheen, Carol Shea-Porter, Terry Shumaker, Andy Smith, Craig Stevens, Kathy Sullivan, Chris Sununu, James Sununu, Jay Surdukowski, Donna Sytek, Kari Thurman, Colin Van Ostern, Deb Vanderbeek, Mike Vlacich, Ryan Williams
North Carolina: Don Davis, Francis X. De Luca, Anita Earls, Jonathan Felts, Tami L. Fitzgerald, Dylan Frick, Taylor Griffin, Robin Hayes, Morgan Jackson, Patsy Keever, Theresa Kostrzewa, Michael Luethy, Ray Martin, Thomas Mills, Melissa L. Reed, Chris Sgro, Paul Shumaker, Dee Stewart, Brad Thompson, Bruce Thompson, Charlie Wallin, Doug Wilson
Ohio: Jerry Austin, Greg Beswick, Matt Borges, Erica Bruton, Tim Burke, Janet Carson, Jai Chabria, Martha Clark, Bob Clegg, Damareo Cooper, Jo Ann Davidson, Michael Dawson, Bill DeMora, Cindy Demse, Kathy Dicristofaro, Katie Eagan, Michael Gonidakis, Wes Goodman, Joe Hallett, Ian James, Melissa Klide Hedden, David Leland, Nick Martin, Rhine McLin, David Pepper, Molly Shack, Mark R. Weaver
Pennsylvania: Chris Borick, Larry Ceisler, Valentino DiGiorgio, Jason Ercole, Dan Fee, Charlie Gerow, Marcel Groen, Leslie Gromis Baker, Mark Harris, Nan McLaughlin, Aubrey Montgomery, Christopher Nicholas, Nachama Soloveichik, David Sosar, Todd Stephens, Doc Sweitzer, David Thornburgh, Ray Zaborney
Virginia: Ray Allen, Sandra Brandt, Marc K. Broklawski, Patsy Brown, Janet Carver, John Cosgrove, Brian Coy, Doris Crouse-Mays, Tom Davis, Julie Dime, Abbi Easter, Mike Farris, John Findlay, Joe Fitzgerald, Sean Harrison, Margo Horner, Robert Hurt, Gaylene Kanoyton, Chris LaCivita, Sue Langley, Frank Leone, Robert G. Marshall, Tucker Martin, Ed Matricardi, Susan J. Rowland, Peter Snyder, Susan Swecker, Jo Thoburn
Wisconsin: Meg Andrietsch, Mary Arnold, Kevin Barthel, Mike Basford, Rebecca Bonesteel, Barry Burden, Terri Burl, Jim Camery, Patrick Guarasci, Robert Hansen, Gary Hawley, Marian Krumberger, Emily Nehring, Jason Rae, Brandon Scholz, John Zapfel
Kristen Hayford contributed to this report.