An Analysis: The First Presidential Debate

Written by Steven Spear, Jr.


Going into Monday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump knew their debate performances had to be flawless. The polls were showing Clinton with a slight lead or a virtual tie with Trump. Clinton needed to repair her image: she had to become likable, caring, and trustworthy. Trump needed to appeal to women and minorities while proving, despite a serious lack of experience, that he is competent to be the President of the United States. Neither candidate accomplished these goals.


The Candidates’ Performances

For Clinton:

She did not bring a strong challenge to Trump’s trade and labor policies and allowed him to dominate the policy discussion. That did not last long, however, and Clinton firmly took control in the last hour of the debate.

Clinton’s most clever strategy was her subtle attacks on his support base. Trump’s typical supporter is a white, working-class man with a high school education who believe that taxes are too high and almost certainly was affected by the Great Recession. Throughout the night, Clinton made attempts at connecting Trump’s proposed tax policies and irresponsible behavior as a businessman to the economic devastation that caused people to lose their jobs, homes, and income. “She also attacked his tax returns: “You’ve got to ask yourselves, ‘Why hasn’t he released his tax returns?’ Maybe he does not want the American people to know that he pays nothing in federal taxes. There is something that he’s hiding.” This argument should have resonated strongly with Trump’s supporters.

Clinton came prepared to attack Trump: She made accusations about his tax returns, his business acumen (taking bankruptcy 6 times), his 1973 lawsuit by the Justice Department for not allowing black people to rent his apartments, his comments on Barack Obama’s citizenship, and his stance on the Iraq War (he originally supported it, then opposed it. Trump claims he never supported it).


For Trump:

He did shockingly well in first 30 minutes. Trump began the debate in a strong fashion that greatly exceeded my expectations. He is certainly knowledgeable about trade and labor: he gave informative details about jobs moving overseas, businesses taking advantage of trade deals, and certain countries artificially lowering labor costs to attract manufacturing jobs.

Trump’s best arguments were when he tried to characterize Clinton as a politician who has been around for years but been unable to fix the problems in the United States. “Hillary, you’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just starting to think about solutions now? Secretary Clinton is a typical politician: All talk; no action. Sounds good; doesn’t work. She has made terrible decision is terms of our jobs.”

Clinton attacked Trump about his words and action in many different fronts, and he started rambling as he was defending himself—you can most easily see this after Clinton mentions Trump’s birther comments and settled Justice Department lawsuit.

Lastly, Trump failed to connect with minority groups. We live in a time where many minorities feel that the criminal justice system is actively working against them and that they cannot trust the police. Trump’s emphasis on “law and order” while bragging about endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police and other police groups  seems like he does not care about the plights and concerns of these people.


Who was the winner?

Hillary Clinton won this debate handily.

She painted Trump as a businessman who is part of the U.S. problems in race relations and the “tyranny of the wealthy” while he seemed unable to land any hits. Clinton came prepared and put Trump on the defensive by attacking his casual relationship with the truth on many issues ranging from his labeling of climate change as a hoax to his support for the Iraq War. Not once did Trump push any of Clinton’s controversies: Benghazi, the e-mail scandal, speeches to Wall Street firms, and donations to the Clinton Foundation from certain foreign governments and the wealthy. Trump was grossly unprepared for this debate.


Highlights of the Night:

Clinton on Trump’s tax plan: “In fact, it would be the biggest tax cuts to top earners that we have ever had. I call it ‘Trumped-Up Trickle Down Economics’ because that’s exactly what it would be.”

Trump on the Trans-Pacific Partnership: “You called it the ‘Gold Standard’ of trade deals. Then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it.” Clinton responded, “Well Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but those are not the facts.”

Trump on Clinton’s website: “You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do. It’s no wonder that you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.”

Trump: “We are a serious debtor nation that does not have the money for improvements because it’s been squandered on your ideas.” Clinton responded, “And maybe it’s because you haven’t been paying federal income taxes for all those years.” Trump quickly said, “It would be squandered too. Believe me.” (this seems to be an unintentional admission that he pays no federal income taxes)

Trump: “I don’t believe that Hillary has the stamina to be President.” Hillary responded, “Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, and an opening of new opportunities for nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”


What happens next?

The vice presidential debate is Tuesday, October 4th.

The second presidential debate is Sunday, October 9th.

The third presidential debate is Wednesday, October 19th.

The last presidential debate is Tuesday, October 25th. Along with Clinton and Trump, this (potential) debate would include Gary Johnson, from the Libertarian Party, and Jill Stein, from the Green Party.


I do not believe this debate changed the minds of any voters. Clinton and Trump supporters are still supporting their candidate, and—more importantly—undecided voters are likely still undecided. In the next debate, Clinton will probably shift away from attacks on Trump’s character and put pressure on the details and feasibility of his policies. Trump needs to stop scrambling every time that Clinton attacks him. Each time he goes on a rant to defend himself, Trump makes himself look weak and unable to handle criticism (something he will get plenty of if elected). He needs to stick to his talking points and come prepared to attack Clinton’s trustworthiness.



Editor’s Note: There was a disagreement between the candidates on the constitutionality of New York’s “stop and frisk” policy. Trump said this policy was constitutional, and Clinton said it wasn’t. Former U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that New York’s stop and frisk policy was unconstitutional in that it was not well-defined within the parameters set by the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio (1968). Since then, the New York Police Department has taken steps to specify where and how the policy is authorized, and, therefore, stop and frisk is constitutional.



  1. […] To see my analysis of the 1st debate, click here […]


  2. […] here for my analysis of the first presidential […]


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