Neither candidate seemed comfortable, appearing jittery like high schoolers with attention deficit disorder, unable to finish a two minute answer without going off on an unrelated tangent.
Maybe they were suffering from nervous exhaustion after such an ugly week, each waiting for the other to land their next body blow and hoping to get their own jab in first. Either way the record number of viewers tuning in must have had a hard time following Sunday’s town hall debate, perhaps better described as a contest over who could most disgrace the other candidate.
Hillary Clinton started with an obvious advantage after a week that saw further in-fighting within the Republican Party sparked by Donald Trump’s 11-year-old taped remarks about groping women. But Clinton lacked the focus that served her so well in the first debate. Meanwhile Trump was swinging wildly and had his rival unnerved at times, especially when pressed on her dismissal of half of Trump supporters as “deplorables.”
Clinton repeated an earlier apology for her poor choice of language but then lost the plot. “My argument is not with his supporters, it’s with him,” said Clinton, before pivoting quickly to talk about how proud she was of her primary battle with Bernie Sanders. “We ran a campaign on issues, not insults,” she said.
That was hardly an answer to the question from the audience which was “how can you unite a country if you’ve written off tens of millions of Americans” as deplorables?
Trump had equal trouble answering that question, getting sidetracked about Clinton’s lies and bad trade deals. Trump said he would “give economics to people. And will bring jobs back because NAFTA, signed by her husband, is perhaps the greatest disaster trade deal in the history of the world.” How reassuring was that to the women, blacks and Hispanics he needs to win over?
Trump called Clinton "the devil" before delivering perhaps his lowest blow of the night, saying “she has tremendous hate in her heart.” That prompted audible intakes of breath from the town hall audience.
“This country cannot take another four years of Barack Obama. And that's what you're getting with her,” he went on. That might have been a good case to make when the campaign started, but less so in a week that saw Obama’s approval rating rise to 53% last week, way better than either Trump or Clinton.
In the end neither candidate did much to advance their cause, most pundits say. But the mere fact that Trump was still on his feet at the end of the night after such a humiliating few days was something of a victory for his embattled campaign.
“In Sunday night’s debate, Donald Trump entered as a universally recognized dead candidate,” said pollster John Zogby. “Trump won this round because he came out fighting and has revived, at least for the moment, a candidacy that could have been moribund,” he added.
“Trump scored some debate points, but he's got to move college educated women & Hispanics. I don't think he did anything there, nor do I think this debate will stop the bleeding of the last two weeks,” said Steven Schale, a former Obama campaign staffer in Florida. “I thought Hillary did a nice job of sticking to her game plan and not getting caught in his personal attacks,” he added.
There was little for Hispanics to take home from the debate, besides the usual platitudes by each candidate about wanting to be a candidate for all Americans, including Latinos. Trump for the first time avoided insulting Mexicans, in fact he didn't mention them at all. Ditto his big border wall, or the small matter of who would pay for it.
Some Latinos may have baulked at Trump threatening to put Clinton behind bars if he is elected for her use of a private email server. That sort of abuse of judicial authority may be common talk in Latin American political campaigns, but sounded out of place in a U.S. election.
“He was basically a third world dictator thug with that comment,” said Schale.
“It again shows his basic misunderstanding of representative democracy, separation of powers, and judicial independence,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin America expert at Florida International University. “We've heard the same threats from the presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. The difference is that the latter have actually carried out their threats,” he added.
But perhaps the biggest disgrace of the night was the town hall format, according to reactions on social media. Do eight questions from the audience really even count as a town hall, some asked?
The moderators focused intently on questions asked repeatedly in previous debates, from Obamacare to Clinton’s emails, Trump’s taxes, and banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
The only new topic came from the audience near the very end, about renewable energy. Clinton gave a detailed answer, highlighting the role natural gas has played in making the United States more energy independent, as well as providing a bridge to a cleaner energy future.
Trump’s answer on the other hand sought to defend coal, the dirtiest fuel in the country. He advocated for “clean coal,” a highly expensive technology which seeks to reduce smoke stack emissions by capturing carbon dioxide. That was something of a contradiction to his repeated attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which has sought to require power companies to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act. Trump has pledged to abolish the EPA.
“The EPA - the Environmental Protection Agency - is killing these energy companies,” Trump said on Sunday. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”
By the end of the night disgrace lay everywhere.