What we learned in the first presidential debate: Clinton is making the election a referendum on Trump

L.A. Times political analysts judged all five rounds of the first presidential debate. The winner? Hillary Clinton. Read more >>

Polls show the presidential race tightening, helping to justify some of the unusual hype surrounding Monday’s initial debate between the two candidates. Here are a few things we learned:

1. Hillary Clinton wants to make the election all about Donald Trump.

She attacked him early and often, accusing him of withholding his tax returns to avoid disclosing tax avoidance, conflicts of interest, or lack of charity. She even accused him of not being as rich as he says he is, hoping to rattle Trump by poking a hole in the center of his ego.

That was only the beginning: She mocked him as being out of touch for using millions of dollars from his father to get his businesses started and accused him of racism and sexism. Her opposition research material was deep and specific, including lawsuits from the early 1970s and names and details about a Venezuelan beauty pageant contestant whom she said Trump disparaged as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.”

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This has been Clinton’s strategy throughout the general election, and it’s a simple one. She’s a very unpopular candidate. To win, she needs to make Trump even less popular.

2. Trump wants to remind voters that Clinton is status quo.

Trump seemed to lose focus in parts of the debate, but he was fairly consistent in returning to this theme, the major thrust of his candidacy.

He frequently told viewers that Clinton has had 30 years to solve the problems she is now promising to fix.

“It’s all words. Its all soundbites,” he said at another point, responding to a Clinton attack, hoping to use her language against her.

“She has experience, but it’s bad experience,” he said at the debate’s conclusion.

3. Clinton has new fodder for her campaign commercials.

Trump almost always refuses to back down, a major part of his appeal during the GOP primaries. But on Monday night, that tendency may have pushed him into traps laid by Clinton.

When she accused him of not paying income tax, Trump did not dispute it. Instead, he bragged.

“That makes me smart,” he said.

When she accused him of using the bankruptcy laws in his business and not paying workers and small businesses that had done work for his companies, he did not deny that either.

“I take advantage of the laws of the nation,” he said.

When she accused him of attacking women, Trump said that his attacks on Rosie O’Donnell’s appearance were a point of pride.

“She deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her,” Trump said.

4. Preparation matters.

Trump boasted about not doing the sort of intense mock-debate preparation that Clinton did. His lack of readiness showed. While he started off strong, he appeared to fade as the 90-minute debate went along. While Clinton had plenty of new attacks to launch, Trump in the second half of the debate often seemed on the defensive.

5. Let’s not get carried away.

It’s too soon to judge how voters will react. Snap polls and focus groups often mislead. It will take several days to get accurate polling at the state and national level, and probably a few days more to confirm it. Even those polls may not accurately depict the effect of the debate, especially if other news interferes and muddies the picture. Remember that instant analysts and later polls all agreed that President Obama lost the first debate in 2012. It didn’t settle the election.

Twitter: @noahbierman


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