Who Won The First Presidential Debate? This One Wasn't Even Close

HEMPSTEAD, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26: The stage is set for Monday night's presidential debate between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York. Clinton and Trump are scheduled to square off this evening in the first 2016 presidential debate. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is finally over. The excruciating closeness and often surreal nature of this election made the event feel especially high-stakes, and nobody quite knew what to expect going in. Now that it's over, there's only one question left: Who won the debate?

The answer is easily that Clinton won the debate, and truthfully, it wasn't even close. She was confident and commanding, yet relaxed, funny and thoroughly at-ease with herself. As usual, her policy knowledge was top-notch, and she was able to throw Trump off of his game with a couple of extremely well-timed zingers while nonetheless sticking to the high road and staying out of the mud.

Meanwhile, Trump was about as bad as Clinton was good. For all of the talk of a "new Trump," or a "pivot" to the center, this was the same guy we've been seeing for the last year, but with only half of the self-assurance. From the moment the debate started, Trump appeared rattled and nervous. He went off on tangents, talked about how much his property was worth, and in one startling moment, appeared to admit that he didn't pay any federal income tax in at least one year of running his businesses.

Of course, viewing presidential debates in terms of winners and losers is a bit misleading. They aren't scored, no medals are handed out, and historically, it's not at all clear that they even make much of a difference in swaying voters. Sometimes, a debate is a wash — there's no clear winner, and both candidates resume the campaign roughly where they began.

On the other hand, sometimes it's abundantly obvious who won a debate. Four years ago, there was close to unanimous agreement that President Obama botched his first debate with Mitt Romney, and the reaction to the second debate was more or less the opposite. Similarly, there's pretty much a consensus that Marco Rubio lost that Republican primary debate in February (you know, the one where he inadvertently repeated the same talking point four times in a row).

Monday's debate was in the latter category. Trump had several very bad moments and no very good moments. At one point, Trump criticized Clinton for doing debate prep instead of visiting Philadelphia (those aren't mutually exclusive activities, of course, but never mind). Here's what she said in response.

"I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate," Clinton said. Then, she turned to face Trump, and spoke very slowly. "And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president, and I think that's a good thing."

The crowd burst into applause — and the crowd was instructed not to applaud. It was arguably the biggest moment of the night, and it was bad for Trump.

This debate isn't the end-all-be-all of the campaign. Clinton and Trump will debate each other two more times before voters head to the polls in November; prior to their second meeting, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence will meet for the single vice presidential debate. Moreover, there are still about six weeks left in this campaign, and any number of unforeseen events could change the trajectory of the race between now and election day.

Nevertheless, there was one clear winner Monday — and it was Clinton.

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