ST. LOUIS—Jason Miller at least had something to work with this time.
“Great night for Trump! That was a knockout!” the Trump campaign spokesman said as he entered the spin room at Washington University. What about the first segment of the debate, though, when Trump was pounded over the leaked tape? “Mr. Trump did absolutely fantastic tonight,” he responded, not missing a beat. “I think Hillary Clinton looked absolutely rattled.”
This is what the team was going with. “I would say Donald Trump had a knockout tonight,” Rudy Giuliani, a few feet away, was saying to reporters. “This was one of the stronger performances I’ve seen in any presidential debate.” Clinton, “by the end, by the second half of that debate, she was tired, she found it hard to finish sentences, and then she kept going on and on and on.”
It is their job to say such things. In terms of pure energy, though, the Trump spinners were far more animated than the Clinton spinners. Trump’s surrogates and spokespeople sounded like an enthusiastic pro-Trump comments section, while Clinton’s spinners sounded like data analysts measuring the effect of Trump’s performance on the long arc of the campaign. This breakdown sounds much like the race as a whole: one candidate with a steamed, from-the-gut minority, another with a cooler, analytics-focused majority. Trump gave his comments section some love Sunday night. What did he offer everyone else?
Firing up his core supporters has never been Trump’s problem, Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said: “He’s been at 42 percent pretty consistently through the horserace, if you look the race nationally, to date.”
“His problem has been he can’t extend his appeal. He has no way to grow with those persuadable, undecided voters,” he went on. “He didn’t help them tonight, to reach out beyond his core supporters. In fact, I think that his whole strategy tonight is to revive and to motivate core supporters who were probably in danger of falling into a depression and funk.” Campaign chairman John Podesta framed Trump’s performance through a similarly dismissive lens: “I think that if he needed to change the trajectory of the race today, he didn’t do it.”
The early response seems to bear out Fallon’s and Podesta’s readings. CNN’s instapoll again showed Clinton pulling off an easy debate victory, 57 percent to 34 percent. YouGov’s survey had it closer and more representative of the national horserace figures. Eerily representative, really. Forty-seven percent said Clinton won. And Trump’s number? It was exactly the figure Fallon said he was stuck on in the national horserace: 42 percent.
Which made it all the odder that so many pundits, beyond the figures paid by Trump to say nice things about him in spin rooms, would instantly conclude that Trump had scored an upset to reset the race. What were Trump’s most memorable sound bites, and to whom were these supposed to appeal?
Trump referred to Bernie Sanders’ support of Clinton as Bernie signing on “with the devil,” which is to say he referred to Clinton as the devil. He trotted out some oldies—Benghazi, “basket of deplorables.” He said Clinton has “tremendous hate in her heart … she’s got tremendous hatred.” He bitched at the moderators incessantly, saying it was “three on one” against him and railing about unfair time constraints. Was he really mad about his allotted time? Or was he just reaching into his primary-season muscle memory, where whining about the refs was always a savvy move? He said—remarkably—that Clinton would “be in jail” if he were in charge of the country.
There was also the thing where he invited Clinton accusers from times past to attend the debate and psych Clinton out. Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones were in the debate hall, and Trump finally got in his digs about Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual crimes over the years. That was his big “play” for the night.
And that play almost certainly made the lives of the Breitbart comments section and the segment of the country that has believed and will continue to believe every awful thing ever floated about the Clintons until the day they die. Trump’s performance wasn’t his worst; to his core supporters, it was easily his best. But he won the race for president of the Breitbart comments section a long time ago. He’s supposed to be trying to win something else.