Who Won The Final Presidential Debate? It Was Closer Than The Previous Showdowns
America breathed a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday night as the last presidential debate of 2016 election — the last one! — came to a close. There have been approximately eleventy-billion presidential debates since this cycle kicked off last year, and now, barring anything truly bizarre, we won’t have to sit through another one until about three years from now. In the meantime: Who won the last presidential debate?
Hillary Clinton did, and in many ways, this debate was a diluted, slightly more low-key version of the first one. That first debate was widely regarded as a disaster for Trump, and post-debate polls heavily supported this interpretation. His constant interruptions of Clinton, visible irritation and inability to answer for the attacks Clinton made on his character made him look small and petty, while Clinton's composure, refusal to get into the mud with her opponent and obvious policy knowledge made her look like an elder stateswoman by comparison.
All of those dynamics were in play at this last presidential debate, just in smaller amounts. Trump hid his fury more effectively than he did the first time. Clinton didn't stay quite as above the fray as she did before, at one point getting into a shouting match with Trump and moderator Chris Wallace, and there were a few questions she didn't have a great answer for, most notably with regard to the Clinton Foundation.
Those bits aside, this was largely just a tamer version of the first debate. Trump still shouted over Clinton throughout the forum, and looked only slightly less furious while doing so. This made him look petty and belittling. Remarkably, he would not commit to accepting the results of the election even if he lost — a comment Clinton called "horrifying," which it is, and it's hard to see it how it will appeal to anyone who doesn't already support Trump.
Clinton again struck several daggers at the heart of Trump's character, reminding viewers of his many misogynistic comments towards women; in doing so, she effectively baited Trump into saying, ridiculously, that "no one has more respect for women than I do." That line drew audible laughter from the audience — just like Trump's proclamation at the first debate that he has "much better temperament" than Clinton. Trump closed out the debate by referring to Clinton as "such a nasty woman," which again is unlikely to play well with swing voters.
There weren't any knockout lines from either candidate, and unlike the first debate, Clinton did stumble a bit. Moreover, Trump did something he didn't do at the first forum: He actually attacked Clinton on the email scandal and accusations of wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation. It's doubtful that those attacks will suddenly start resonating with the public, but it probably pleased his base. At the very least, Trump appeared less impotent than at the first forum. But he still lost — just by a slightly smaller margin.
When Wednesday’s debate kicked off, the question wasn’t whether or not Trump could use it to revive his campaign, as his campaign may be past the point of revival. Team Trump has been in a death spiral ever since the first debate, and as of Wednesday, various forecasters gave him between a two and 13 percent chance of winning the White House in November. Those aren’t the kind of numbers you can reverse with even a stellar debate performance, especially when it’s the third and last debate.
No, the question on Wednesday night was whether or not Trump could use the debate to prevent things from getting any worse. A competent showing wouldn’t make Trump the favorite to win the election, but it could have — at least in theory — helped down ballot Republicans in tight Senate races. He didn't turn out a competent showing, and he didn't help any down ballot Republicans.
Debates are amongst the most high-profile events of a presidential campaign, but there’s little evidence that they have much of an effect on the final outcome. This is doubly true when one candidate is running away with the race, as Clinton is now, and from that perspective, “winning” this last debate wasn’t actually all that important. Clinton would have been the heavy favorite to become America’s 45th president regardless of who won this last debate, and she still is.