The 45th President of the United States will be elected in 42 days, and the outcome of last night’s debate might be the best indication of who will win the 2016 election.
Official poll numbers reflecting the impact of last night’s debate will not be out for a few days, but be assured that it will factor significantly in the candidates’ standings.
Why is this first debate so important? Exposure, for one thing. Roughly one-third of Americans were expected to tune in last night. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced their largest national audience. No matter how many chats they had with Jimmy Fallon or snarky tweets they blasted, this was perhaps their biggest opportunity to make their message clear. Typically, viewership drops in later debates.
“The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the most important debate, at least in terms of information acquisition, is the first debate,” political scientist Thomas Holbrook wrote. “The first debate is held at a time when voters have less information at their disposal and a larger share of voters are likely to be undecided.”
In 2012, Mitt Romney went into the first debate trailing incumbent Barack Obama 42-51 in a Pew Research Center poll. However, many thought Obama failed to deliver his potent oratory and seemed tired, while Romney appeared polished and confident. Two weeks later, the numbers showed Romney had completely closed the gap into a 46/46 tie.
Granted, Romney’s debate “win” did not land him in the White House. But Trump and Clinton took the stage last night in a virtual tie in the polls–the average of three national polls had Clinton leading by the slight margin of 44 to 42 percent. Their debate performances will likely tip the scales.
The image Trump’s presented of his political preparedness to take office was tested. The debate also demonstrated how Clinton’s likability and strength of personality compared to a man whose ego preceded him into the campaign.
Before the debate, their images were filtered and framed by the media, and by propaganda created largely by their supporters and critics. At the debate, it was their own actions and words that shaped the public’s perception – supposedly, the “real” Clinton and Trump.
In the last few weeks Trump has gained on Clinton. He’s been cooperating with his advisers and staying on message. The same advisers who prepped him for last night know that the public’s impression of his preparedness for the presidency would be solidified. In a few days the polls will reveal if he accomplished that.
Ultimately, the candidates’ goal was to sway the undecided voters who make up a huge 36 percent of the electorate right now.
“This year’s surplus of undecided voters is not composed primarily of people certain to vote who are trying to decide between Clinton or Trump. Many of them are trying to decide whether to vote or not,” New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore said.
Debating the Debate: Go to www.metro.us/round1 and tell us who you feel won the debate.