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Sept. 27 2016 6:11 PM

More People Watched Trump Lose Monday Night’s Debate Than Watched the Seinfeld Finale

It’s (almost) official: Monday’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the most watched debate in U.S. history, according to early figures released by Nielsen on Tuesday afternoon. Via the New York Times:

Preliminary figures from 12 national networks showed an average viewership of 83.8 million, ahead of the 80.6 million that tuned in to the 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the previous record-holder. The estimated size of the audience is expected to be revised by Tuesday evening, when Nielsen announces a more definitive count.

Even with a looming revision, the Clinton-Trump clash appears a safe bet to top the first and only time Carter and Reagan squared off on stage 36 years ago. That televised contest was the only other debate in U.S. history to crack the 70 million mark in Neilson’s ratings. The next most-watched debate was the second three-man battle between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot in 1992, which had an estimated 69.9 million viewers.* Monday’s viewership, meanwhile, far surpassed the 67.2 million who were watching when President Obama turned in a dud in his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012.

Obviously, the Clinton-Trump show had the considerable advantage that there are more Americans alive now to watch debates than were around in years past. Still, the 83.8 million figure is staggering. It represents roughly a quarter of the current U.S. population. For comparison, meanwhile, based on the early estimates, more people watched Trump become unglued Monday night than watched: Johnny Carson’s final turn as host of the Tonight Show (50 million); the season finales of Friends (66 million), Seinfeld (76 million), and The Fugitive (78 million); and any of the first 15 Super Bowls, which ranged from 39.1 million for Super Bowl II to 78.9 million for Super Bowl XII.

Trump, however, can console himself knowing that Monday’s viewership didn’t approach the 115 million people who watched the Seattle Seahawks throw away Super Bowl XLIX in the closing moments of the game, or the 105 million who watched the finale of M.A.S.H.

*Correction, Sept. 28, 2016: An earlier version of this post misstated the year of the Clinton-Bush-Perot debate. It took place in 1992, not 1997.

Sept. 27 2016 3:46 PM

Actually, Trump Should Skip the Next Two Debates

Although it's unlikely that Monday night's debate at Hofstra University will completely upend a terrifyingly close contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the first head-to-head event of the season was almost certainly the best thing that has happened to Clinton in well over a month. With two debates remaining between the candidates, the question is: Should Trump actually attend the remaining showdowns?

This was, at least, the question Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani’s floated Monday night, when he said:

If I were Donald Trump I wouldn’t participate in another debate unless I was promised that the journalist would act like a journalist and not an incorrect, ignorant fact checker.

Lester Holt did fine Monday night, but Rudy’s right. If Trump were to do what he normally does and distinguish the interests of himself and his country, he would skip the rest of the debates. Canceling would prompt some bad press and even (briefly) more concerns about his suitability for the presidency. But that’s preferable to two more nights like the one he had on Monday, especially since the American people have repeatedly proven, both before and during the rise of Trump, that they don't care as much as one might think (or hope!) about the violation of political norms. For this unfortunate reason, declining to debate Hillary Clinton again might just be Trump’s best strategy.

Momentum may not exist in politics or even sports, but try convincing an anxious news junkie of the former and see how far you get. After a successful convention and a number of missteps by her opponent, Clinton had been flailing recently, with concerns about her health and ethics somehow overshadowing the fact that she is running against a vile authoritarian. The Hofstra debate, however, was a clear-cut victory for her. Not only did she appear calm and steady despite Trump's repeated interruptions and nonsensical outbursts; she also deftly attacked his birtherism and business practices, thereby preventing him from ever developing a rhythm for his (powerful, one suspects) theme on her as symbol of the status quo.

Would another debate be much different? Decoding whether Trump is capable of doing something, such as preparing for the next debate, is always a difficult task, so it's near impossible for any nonphilosopher or nonexpert in the mechanisms of the universe and freewill to say whether Trump "could" have prepared for last night's debate or “might” be capable of doing so next time. What is certain is that he didn't, and as the night wore on his answers got closer and closer to gibberish, his lack of knowledge strikingly apparent. I don’t see that changing.

But it isn't just the debate that hurt Trump; it's the cycles that follow. Perhaps Clinton's most successful attack featured Trump's reportedly cruel treatment of a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, who (she claims) he fat-shamed two decades ago. But what might have been a debate night story is still going strong the next day; the candidate, predictably unable to help himself, went on television Tuesday morning and shamed Machado some more, telling Fox News that she “gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.”

Can his campaign withstand the repercussions of two more bad performances and the resulting effect on his psyche? And why should it? As painful as it is for pundits and television executives to admit, skipping the debate is probably the right thing for Trump to do. There remains very little evidence that Americans punish politicians for procedural decisions, even if they violate long-held norms. (Yes, John McCain endured some bad press when he suggested postponing a debate with Barack Obama because of the financial crash. But Trump pulled out of a primary debate, to little effect.) And there’s months of evidence that Trump can survive without a single strong debate performance. If he has been more successful over the past month, it is in part because he has appeared only in venues, such as Fox News, that are friendly and controllable.

As occasionally ridiculous as they are, the debates remain one of the better ways for viewers to learn about the candidates. If Trump walks away, he just might benefit. And as is always the case when he benefits, everyone else loses.

Sept. 27 2016 1:10 PM

Rudy Giuliani Is Really Not Helping Donald Trump Right Now

Trump's staff and advisers ostensibly exist to stop him from engaging in these kind of petty rants. Tuesday, though, prominent Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani is out in the media amplifying them. From Politico:

"I sure would’ve talked about what she did to Monica Lewinsky, what that woman standing there did to Monica Lewinsky, trying to paint her as an insane young woman when in fact Monica Lewinsky was an intern,” Giuliani said. “The president of the United States, her husband, disgraced this country with what he did in the Oval Office and she didn’t just stand by him, she attacked Monica Lewinsky. And after being married to Bill Clinton for 20 years, if you didn’t know the moment Monica Lewinsky said that Bill Clinton violated her that she was telling the truth, then you’re too stupid to be president."

Monica Lewinsky has never said that Bill Clinton "violated" her, and Hillary Clinton did not make any public comments about Lewinsky's mental state at the time of Lewinsky's affair with Bill Clinton. (The most generous reading of Giuliani's remarks is that he might be referring to a 2014 revelation that Hillary Clinton may have told a friend during the scandal that Lewinsky was a "narcissistic loony tune.") At the time of the scandal, incidentally, Rudy Giuliani was cheating on his wife, who his divorce lawyer would later compare to a pig. Trump himself disparaged his first wife after cheating on her. Truly two men who are committed to the respectful treatment of women!

Giuliani also declared that Trump should boycott the next two debates because, I guess, Holt pointed out a few times that Trump was saying things that were not true:

“If I were Donald Trump I wouldn’t participate in another debate unless I was promised that the journalist would act like a journalist and not an incorrect, ignorant fact checker,” Giuliani said. “The moderator would have to promise that there would be a moderator and not a fact checker and in two particular cases an enormously ignorant, completely misinformed fact checker.”

It's clear, at the least, why Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump get along.

Sept. 27 2016 12:20 PM

Hillary Won the Debate. What Does That Mean for Hillary?

The winner of the first presidential debate is not up for debate. Hillary Clinton wasn’t perfect—particularly at the start—but she grew stronger as the night wore on. Donald Trump, meanwhile, began to fall apart roughly a third of the way through the 90-minute affair and only became more nonsensical and aggrieved from there. The night went so badly for him that Rudy Giuliani, one of his top surrogates, said afterward that if he were Trump, he’d sit out the final two debates altogether.

But just how much will Monday night’s outcome matter come November?

Talking heads and the cable news networks that employ them have an incentive to overhype the importance of a presidential debate. Historically, however, there’s just not a lot of evidence that one good debate—or one bad one—can irrevocably change a candidate’s fortunes. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney was widely considered to have shellacked President Obama in the first head-to-head contest. But while Romney erased Obama’s four-point lead in the national polls shortly thereafter, the president would eventually go on to pull away again. Political scientists, meanwhile, have taken a closer look at those alleged debate game-changers—Richard Nixon’s sweating; Al Gore’s sighing—and have failed to find evidence that they mattered all that much. In fact, only two of the past seven “winners” of the opening debates have gone on to win the election.

That’s not to say that debates don’t matter at all—just that they’re only part of a larger puzzle that is put together over an entire year. It will be a few days before we have enough data to draw any real conclusions about whether Monday’s debate changed any minds. But the limited snap polling taken overnight suggests that Clinton should see a small bump. Debate watchers surveyed by CNN/ORC, for instance, called the debate for Hillary by a 35-point margin, with 62 percent saying she won compared with only 27 percent who said Donald did. That’s the third most-lopsided result in the survey’s history, which dates back to 1984. The only larger margins of victory were Romney’s 42-point defeat of Obama in the first 2012 debate and Bill Clinton’s 42-point win over George H.W. Bush in the second 1992 debate, which also featured Ross Perot.

The group surveyed by CNN this year appears to have skewed Democrat slightly, but Nate Silver points out that the poll’s results have correlated relatively well with post-debate poll movement in elections past. As a result, Silver suggests that Clinton could theoretically see a gain of about 2 to 4 points, which would be on the higher end of post-debate swings in modern history. It would also more than double Clinton’s current lead in the national averages and restore her advantage to where it was in the middle of August during Trump’s post-convention controversy tour.

I’ll leave the prognosticating to the prognosticators. But something to keep in mind as the post-debate polls roll in this week is what impact they may have on Clinton’s decision-making between now and Election Day. If she really does pick up a few points as expected, it will re-establish her as the clear favorite, which could spur her to focus on trying to build that lead further. But if her bounce is muted (or non-existent), she will have to consider the fact that the nation’s polarization—along with her historically bad-but-for-Trump favorability ratings—has already largely locked the electorate in place. In that case, the final month of this election will be less about drawing in undecided and more about fiercely protecting and mobilizing the support she has.

Sept. 27 2016 11:49 AM

A Valiant Attempt at Deciphering Trump’s Nuclear Weapons Answer From Monday Night

I suspect that moderator Lester Holt was taking his cues from MSNBC contributor Hugh Hewitt last night when he asked Donald Trump about his views on nuclear deterrence. As my colleague Jim Newell wrote in his debate preview, the conservative talk show host had a notable victory in knocking Trump out of his comfort zone last December when he asked him about upgrading “the nuclear triad”—referring to land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. Trump’s response revealed that he had clearly never heard the term before. (Hewitt is supporting him anyway.) And he didn’t display much more knowledge Monday night.

“On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation's longstanding policy on first use,” Holt said to Trump last night, referring to reports that Obama was considering declaring that the U.S. would never use nuclear unless attacked by them first, which he appears to now be backing down from. “Do you support the current policy?”

Here was the radioactive gobbledygook Trump came back with:

Well, I have to say that, you know, for what Secretary Clinton was saying about nuclear with Russia, she's very cavalier in the way she talks about various countries. But Russia has been expanding their—they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint.
I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they're old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them. We are not—we are not keeping up with other countries. I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike.
I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it's over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can't take anything off the table.

As Fred Kaplan noted, Trump once again does not appear to have ever heard the term he was being asked about. In fact, you could generously say that he was attempting to answer Hewitt’s question nine months later, since the B-52 is, in fact, part of the nuclear triad (which is being upgraded by the way).

Anyway, it’s really, really hard to fact-check Trump’s answer; the word pile makes no sense. But: It’s wrong to say that the U.S. is not updating its nuclear arsenal. Much to the frustration of the anti-nuclear activists who cheered Obama’s famous 2009 Prague speech, in which he laid out his goal of a nuclear-free world, the U.S. is now set to spend about $1 trillion on a nuclear overhaul over the next three decades. It’s also wrong to suggest that Russia is falling behind the U.S. on nuclear capabilities, though it is spending heavily in an effort to catch up with America’s spending spree.

But there’s more to parse here. Trump says he “would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it,” by which we can only assume that Trump, too, is the sort of hippie peacenik who visualizes a world without nuclear weapons, even if he opposes basically every measure that would make this more likely. He then said, “but I would certainly not do first strike” by which he either:

  1. Meant that he wouldn’t do “no-first-use,” which doesn’t seem likely because Trump probably doesn’t know what that is.
  2. Meant that he would not actually use nuclear weapons first, which contradicts previous things that he has said.
  3. Or just assumed from Holt’s question that first-use/first-strike is a thing that Obama is for, so he must be against it.

Holt’s question was, in some sense, a classic gotcha designed to expose Trump’s ignorance. Most of the viewing public probably didn’t know about the first use debate either. But the specific choice of topic was actually pretty perceptive, given that our current system of keeping the most destructive arsenal in the history of humankind on a hair trigger relies an awful lot on the good judgment of one person. The Trump candidacy is, itself, the best argument for taking first-use off the table.

Sept. 27 2016 10:33 AM

Trump Complains That Pageant Winner Hillary Mentioned Did, in Fact, Gain Too Much Weight

Hillary Clinton had an effective moment in Monday night's presidential debate in which she brought up Alicia Machado, a Venezuelan woman who won Trump's Miss Universe contest in 1996 and who says Trump called her "Miss Piggy" because of her weight and "Miss Housekeeping" because she is Latina. Trump appeared unprepared to discuss Machado during the debate and, Tuesday morning on Fox and Friends, dug his hole a little/lot deeper by insisting that Machado had it coming:

TRUMP: At the end, maybe, the very last question, when she brought up the person that became—I know that person, that person was a Miss Universe person, and she was the worst we ever had. The worst, the absolute worst. She was impossible, and she was a Miss Universe contestant and ultimately a winner who they had a tremendously difficult time with as Miss Universe.
SOME FOX HACK: Did not know that story.
ANOTHER FOX STOOGE: Wow, I didn't know either.
TRUMP: She was the winner, and, you know, she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem. We had a real problem. Not only that, her attitude, and we had a real problem with her, so Hillary went back into the years and she found this girl. This was many years ago, and found the girl and talked about her like she was Mother Teresa and it wasn't quite that way, but that's OK.

Here's an excerpt one of Trump's books in which he complains about Machado sitting "plumply" in the Miss Universe greenroom:

It looks like we might have a real "Thing that Trump can't let go and keeps talking about for days even as his advisers beg him to stop and his poll numbers plummet" situation on our hands here.

Sept. 27 2016 3:36 AM

Clinton Victorious in First Two Debate Snap Polls

Pundits—from the liberal stooges at Slate to cable talking heads to conservatives at the National Review to Republican operatives like Frank Luntz—generally felt on Monday night that Hillary Clinton had a better debate performance than Donald Trump. But who cares what pundits think? Let’s take it to the American people!

Unfortunately, the most meaningful indexes of how the debate changed what the American people think—new polls of likely voters taken entirely after Monday’s debate—won’t be out for several days. But what we do have are two quick polls that cover what debate viewers thought.

  • A PPP poll found that viewers thought Clinton had won the debate by a 51-40 margin. Among that group, 40 percent of viewers said the debate had made them more likely to vote for Clinton vs. 35 percent who said it'd made them more likely to vote for Trump.
  • A CNN/ORC poll found that 62 percent of viewers thought Clinton won vs. 27 percent who thought Trump did so. That’s the most lopsided result in CNN’s data set, which goes back until 1984, except for Romney smoking Obama 67–25 at their first debate in 2012 and a Bill Clinton triumph over George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992.* Of CNN's respondents, 34 percent said the debate had made them more likely to vote for Clinton while 18 percent said it had made them more likely to vote for Trump.

It's impossible to say with this limited data how many truly undecided voters had their minds changed Monday night, but at the least it’s evidence that HRC didn’t underwhelm the the expectation that she would perform more competently than Trump. She definitely went right out there and whelmed!

*Correction, Sept. 27: This post originally misstated that Clinton's victory was the second-largest in CNN/ORC's data set. It was the third-largest victory.

Sept. 27 2016 1:46 AM

Every Time Donald Trump Sniffed at the Debate

Many things happened at the first presidential debate Monday night. Hillary Clinton said "Woo, OK!" Donald Trump name-dropped Sidney Blumenthal, Rosie O'Donnell, and Sean Hannity—and definitely did not talk about Bill Clinton's infidelities. But unless you watched the festivities with the sound off like a total weirdo, it was hard to miss the defining noise of the night: Donald Trump's incessant sniffing.

Did Trump have a tiny Lego stuck up his nose? Is sniffing his nervous tick? Maybe he has pneumonia, hard to say. Anyway, enjoy this video, which is super pleasant and not at all disgusting.

Sept. 27 2016 12:43 AM

Trump Praises Self During, After Debate for Not Bringing Up Bill Clinton’s Infidelity

Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump on Monday night for his history of misogyny, and during his response, Trump said something weird about wanting to say something but not saying it.

The transcript:

Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials, some of it said in entertainment, somebody who's been very vicious to me, Rosie O'Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her. I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, I can't do it. I just can't do it. It's inappropriate.

Hey, that doesn't make sense at all! Trump then elaborated, sort of, on this claim after the debate to CNN's Dana Bash.


BASH: Anything you wish you did earn differently?
TRUMP: I'm very happy I was able to hold back on the indiscretions with respect to Bill Clinton. Because I have a lot of respect for Chelsea Clinton, and I didn't want to say what I was going to say—
BASH: Which is?
TRUMP: Which is I'll tell you maybe at the next debate, we'll see.

It now appears that Trump's campaign—which is losing the post-debate news cycle pretty badly, for what that's worth—is now trying to make "at least he didn't talk about Bill Clinton's affairs" some sort of positive-takeaway talking point.

It's good to have things to be proud of. But hey, I guess when most pundits agree that you got roasted and toasted in your big presidential debate, you might as well throw the old "I want to be very clear that my campaign played absolutely no role in creating this story alleging that the congressman had sexual relationships with prostitutes that were later murdered" strategy at the wall to see if it sticks.

Sept. 27 2016 12:19 AM

I Watched the Presidential Debate With the Sound Off. Bugs Bunny Won.

It’s been said the best way to judge a presidential debate is to watch with the sound off. So I did.

It was liberating! Stress that accrued throughout the day—as I fretted for the fate of our republic—dissolved into the calming silence of a muted television. During the pre-debate runup, graphics swooped weightlessly across the screen, untethered to those urgent string sections. Teams of analysts flapped their gums, but no inanities reached my ears. So serene.

And then the candidates took the stage. Clinton covered more ground as they marched toward each other, racing across the carpet with her robotic, arm-pumping gait.

Once installed behind their lecterns, Trump leaned forward and gripped the sides of his as though he wished to pry its top off, while Clinton placed her hands gently before her on the flat surface. His suit jacket easily filled the full width of his split-screen half. Her narrower, flame-red-clad frame left open space at her sides.

As they started to speak, their hands rose and flitted. Her gestures rarely ventured beyond the silhouette of her torso. She often swept her hands inward, toward her heart. To emphasize a point, she’d indicate delicately with her right hand, as though placing a peach on a shoulder-level shelf. She sometimes offered tiny shrugs, while lifting her lower lip, in a manner that suggested she’d contemplated both sides of a thorny question and found no easy answer.

His gesticulating was far more kinetic, his hands chopping down from ear level toward the lectern, his arms swinging side to side. He forever seemed to be forcefully sweeping something off a table. He nodded decisively with each syllable, conveying certainty in what he said. When answering a question, he’d lean toward his mic, letting one shoulder drop, torqueing his upper body. His eyes and his whole posture repeatedly gravitated toward his rival, and it appeared he wished to challenge her. She’d observe him coolly, blinking, expressionless. On occasion she’d break into an incredulous smile, and once she laughed like a socialite who’d heard something naughty.

In 2008, political commentator Jeff Greenfield posited a theory in Slate about two types of presidential candidates. First there are the Daffy Ducks: “He fumes, he clenches his fists, his eyes bulge, and his entire body tenses with fury.” Then there are the Bugs Bunnies: “at ease, laid back, secure, confident.” Greenfield argues that the public always votes for the candidate more like Bugs.

If you watched with the sound off, Clinton was the Bugs tonight. When she spoke, she almost never bothered to look Trump’s way, even as he interrupted her, which he seemed to do a lot. Instead, she addressed the people at home. She didn’t seem to care much about her rival. The one time she did interact with him in a physical way, she shimmied with glee—shivering her shoulders, delighting in mockery.

Meanwhile, Trump would listen with head tilted, lips pursed, eyes narrowed to slits—a sinister bearing that made him look angry, resentful, fuming like someone who’d been bested.

Is that what happened?