ANALYSIS: Clinton clear winner as Trump takes bait

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shake hands during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Joe Raedle/Pool via AP)
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shake hands during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Joe Raedle/Pool via AP)

After a September swoon that saw her once-commanding lead shrivel to a virtual tie, the pressure was on Democratic presidential Hillary Clinton tonight to put in a strong debate performance against GOP nominee Donald Trump. With a couple of assists from Trump, Clinton met the expectations game and has put pressure on Trump heading into the final stretch of the campaign.

The 90-minute long debate, one of the most anticipated political events in modern memory, lived up to it’s billing.

And what became clear around 20 minutes in was that one candidate came prepared, while the other did not. Clinton displayed her deep knowledge of policy issues while also showing off her underrated performance skills. She knew which buttons to punch, when to attack, and when to let Trump dig himself into a hole.

Trump, on the other hand, took the bait. It’s that simple. The mood was set from the get-go when Clinton insinuated that Trump was only as wealthy as he was because of his father. She would then hammer away at his business record, his comments on women, and other digs meant to get under his skin.

Clinton was the clear winner of this debate, which is perhaps surprising because of the extremely high expectations placed on her going in and the low bar set for Trump. It seemed impossible for her to meet the bar, but she did.

One example of Clinton’s exemplary performance was her answer on her use of a private email server. This is an issue that has dogged her the entire campaign. She never had a good answer for it — until tonight, that is.

“I made a mistake using a private e-mail. And if I had to do it over again, I would obviously do it differently. But I’m not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake and I take responsibility for that,” Clinton said.

Four sentences and she put the issue to rest. That’s it. Over.

When Clinton gets herself in trouble, it’s because of long answers spoken in legal-ese that most voters can’t comprehend, which makes her sound like she’s either lying or making up excuses. But, by owning it with that simple, but effective answer, she did not have to deal with the email question the rest of the night.

Trump, on the other hand, walked into every trap laid before him. He had plenty of opportunities to go after Clinton’s record and not give in to the bait, but he could not help himself.

The candidates first traded barbs on economic issues, specifically trade. Trump hit Clinton for her husband’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and her initial support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (she no longer supports its passage).

“(W)e have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us. We have to stop our companies from leaving the United States and, with it, firing all of their people,” Trump said. “All you have to do is take a look at Carrier air conditioning in Indianapolis. They left — fired 1,400 people. They’re going to Mexico. So many hundreds and hundreds of companies are doing this.”

It was this portion where Trump was strongest. While speaking with a very Trumpian broadness, the GOP nominee made his appeal to the white-working class voters he will need to win in November. It’s a simple message, but very effective. It will play well in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, states Trump will have to win if he wants to be president.

But that’s about nearly all Trump would do well. After the section on jobs, the discussion moved to race. Clinton gave nuanced answers, calling for comprehensive criminal justice reform and gun reform.

“We have to restore trust between communities and the police,” Clinton said. “Everyone should be respected by the law and everyone should respect the law … But we also have to recognize, in addition to the challenges that we face with policing, there are so many good, brave police officers who equally want reform.”

Trump, on the other hand, said that a tough-on-crime, law and order approach would be appropriate.

“We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous,” Trump said. “You walk down the street, you get shot (…) We have to bring back law and order.”

The GOP nominee would go on to compare Chicago to a war-torn country and suggested that a return to stop and frisk policies might be a solution to decrease violence.

With that went any semblance that Trump’s appeal to black voters was sincere. In addition to being unconstitutional, stop and frisk is extremely unpopular among African-Americans.

Holt would then follow up with a question on the birther issue, which Trump only disavowed a few weeks ago. Trump would respond by, again, falsely trying to pin the blame at the feet of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign for starting the movement. Trump would then deflect again when asked why it took so long to disavow the movement after President Obama released his long form birth certificate in 2011, which showed that he was born in the United States.

The response from Clinton was almost too easy.

“He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” Clinton said. “There was absolutely no evidence for it, but he persisted.”

Much of the rest of the debate would focus on foreign policy questions: how to defeat ISIS, the U.S.’s role in NATO and cyber security. Trump again claimed falsely that he did not support the Iraq War, but this time he was fact-checked.

Now, at the end of the day, debates probably will not decide an election. That was seen in 2012 when everyone thought Obama lost the election after his horrible first debate against Mitt Romney.

But, this debate unquestionably helps Clinton define the narrative going into the last month. And it will give her at least one good week of press following a not-so-good month. But, the race is still close and there are still three debates (two presidential, one vice presidential) left. Though, there’s no doubt the Clinton campaign is feeling good tonight.