(Charleston, West Virginia) – The debates are over, and now it is time to vote. The candidates served up a lot to chew on in their final encounters, so let’s “brunch” on that this week.
“WikiLeaks” – I thought this was Donald Trump’s best debate – though it was not without its problems. More about that in a moment. Trump’s best moment was when he confronted Hillary Clinton about one of her speeches that was produced in an email hack by WikiLeaks. It was a speech to Brazilian bankers in which she advocated for “open borders” in the U.S. While Clinton maintained she was talking about energy policy, Trump argued she was talking about immigration policy. It was one of his hardest hits of the night.
“Late in the Game” – Trump could use more “moments” like the ones provided by WikiLeaks. The problem is that time, momentum, and format are not on his side. The election is November 8, but early voting is already underway in many states. If more incriminating emails come out from WikiLeaks on - say November 1, all the people who early voted can’t go back and change their ballots. It’s also hard to change minds in the eleventh hour, and the number of undecided voters is dwindling.
“Combative Versus Mean” – One of Donald Trump’s best qualities is his combativeness – unless it goes too far. Look, he got to this point in the race because he is spontaneous, unscripted, and blunt. There really is no filter. Renowned pollster Frank Luntz has done focus groups throughout the campaign where debate viewers control a dial in which they can react positively or negatively to a candidate’s remarks. Trump always scores well when he is feisty and combative, but his ratings turn negative when he starts name calling, such as when he said Hillary Clinton was a “liar,” or “such a nasty woman.” When he crosses the line, many voters go thumbs down. Suddenly, his biggest asset – his candor – becomes a liability.
“Al Smith Dinner” – My same critique might be said for his remarks at the quadrennial Al Smith Dinner the night following the debate. Some of his jokes about Hillary Clinton were hysterical; and, in turn, some of her barbs aimed at him were quite funny. But when he crossed the line into personal attacks during what is supposed to be a bipartisan and satirical event, he crossed the line. The fallout is that the mean clips dominate the news coverage, and all the funny stuff gets forgotten. There’s an old saying: “Quit while you’re ahead,” and Trump should have abided by it. He would have won the night in the candidates' last joint appearance. Likability is a great last-minute impression to leave on wavering or undecided voters.
“The Clinton Strategy” – I thought the strongest moment in the debate for Clinton was when she criticized Trump for his behavior towards women. Instead of mentioning women who have made allegations of sexual impropriety about Trump (which could have brought a backlash on Clinton), she chose to talk about the female reporter who wrote the article. “He attacked the woman reporter writing the story, called her disgusting as he has called a number of women during this campaign. Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” Clinton said. By attacking Trump in this way, Clinton hit hard on an issue that has hurt Trump, without allowing him to return fire by talking about Bill Clinton’s treatment of women and about Hillary’s protection of her husband.
“Early Voting” – I offer the above advice because this campaign will leave a lot of “lessons learned” for future candidates. There is the old bromide, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” The other end of that should be, “You only have one chance to make a final impression before people vote.” I say this because Election Day may be November 8, but a lot of people can now vote early. For example, following the final debate and the Al Smith Dinner, early voting was already underway in 24 states. This week, 13 more states will join that list. If everyone had to wait until Election Day, some of the negative images have a chance to fade. But if they can vote the morning after the final debate, last impressions can be powerful.
“The Handshake” – I used to coach a lot of youth sports, and the one thing we stressed to the kids was sportsmanship – win, lose, or draw. The captains would shake hands at the start of the game, and the players and coaches from each side would shake hands after the game. It was a great life lesson about competition and camaraderie. I think the candidates should shake hands before and after the debate. They look petty and small when they don’t.
“Respect for the Process” – Speaking of sportsmanship, Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the results of the election seemed odd. “I will look at it at the time,” Trump said. That led to speculation he might not concede the election should he lose. Now it’s one thing to hold off on a concession if the race is close (as it was in 2000), or if there is evidence of significant voter fraud. But election concessions are a time-honored tradition in American politics. I thought in 1992 President George H.W. Bush gave one of the classiest concessions. It’s especially tough when you’re the incumbent President and you lose. Still, you congratulate your opponent and pledge cooperation and healing to the nation. It’s not only polite; it’s patriotic.
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