The first two US presidential debates have been the talk of the town – and the world – since they aired. The third, and final, debate on Wednesday night has proven no different. But what’s new?
Hillary Clinton won the third debate, just as she won the first. Clinton is ahead in the polls – just as she has always been. Clinton’s favourability ratings are better than Donald Trump’s – just as they have always been. Nothing seems all that different.
(It’s contested who can claim victory in the second debate – not that claiming victory in the nastiest clash of presidential nominees in modern US history is particularly something to be proud of.)
I was just as guilty as the rest of the media, thinking the debates could “change the trajectory of the race”. There were plenty of reasons to believe they could. Clinton had refused to hold a press release for over 270 days, presumably to avoid any and all questioning around the email and foundation scandals that have plagued her presidential campaign for the past year. So what was going to happen when she was confronted with a no-holds, no-shame opponent who was gunning for her? It could have been a game-changer.
Likewise, Trump has been getting away with the most outlandish exaggerations, most of which have largely gone unchecked. Even international media outlets have struggled to challenge or correct him when interviewing him live on air. Would 90 minutes on a debate stage – with a fiercely competitive and experienced debater – result in the battle of ideas we’ve all been waiting for?
The answer turned out to be a resounding no, on all fronts. The showdown of a lifetime was explosive, absolutely, but its only substance was personal insults, interrupted every once in a while by Clinton directing people to her own campaign’s fact-checking website.
We have seen some dramatic swings in the polls over the past three weeks – but there’s far more reason to believe that Trump’s decline is related to the leak of a now-infamous taped discussion, in which he (at best) made up or (at worst) revealed his predatory nature towards women. This revelation, combined with numerous women coming forward alleging to have been victims of Trump’s attacks, seems mostly responsible for his recent nose-dive.
Some people out there will argue it was Clinton’s masterful performance that has given her such a lead – (often the same people who think her decision to delete over 30,000 emails of government record is a Republican hack job) – but there is not a single moment to point to over the course of the three debates that highlights anything this praiseworthy. Indeed, one of the most obvious pitfalls of her presentation was her inability to put away – or deliver a final blow – to such an inexperienced, vulnerable candidate. Clinton merely rode the coattails of perception: next to Trump, she looks presidential. Anyone would.
Trump did lose out on an opportunity to bring sceptical and new voters into his fold. But these debates were never about the swing voters or the undecideds. It was all a spectacle, designed to give viewers at home the best reality television viewing of their lives. In that sense, Trump delivered on what he’s always promised to do: shake things up, and keep the whole conversation on him – for better or for worse.
Having battled and staggered through three ridiculous debates, we’ve come out the other side, less than three weeks away from election day. Clinton leads the polls by a rather unimpressive margin, the media talks Trump’s latest outrage, and Americans are left feeling utterly disheartened about whatever happens on 8 November. But hey, what’s new?