The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The first debate was a defeat for Trump. Here’s why the second could be an outright massacre.

Here are the key moments from the first 2016 presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

If the first step to fixing your problem is acknowledging you have a problem, Donald Trump is in some serious trouble. We’re ten days from his second debate with Hillary Clinton, and while most voters and virtually every sane observer agree that Trump did poorly in the first debate, a spate of reporting suggests that his campaign, and especially Trump himself, are in a state of deep denial about what happened and what he needs to do in order to have a different outcome next time.

But that’s not all. Because of the format of the second debate, Trump stands to do even worse than he did in the first debate, and Clinton could do even better.

I’ll explain why that is in a moment, but first, let’s take a quick tour around Trumpland today:

  • The New York Times reports that because of Trump’s short attention span and staff chaos, his preparation for the first debate devolved into him and a few advisers including Rudy Giuliani and Roger Ailes sitting around shooting the breeze: “There were early efforts to run a more standard form of general election debate-prep camp…But Mr. Trump found it hard to focus during those meetings, according to multiple people briefed on the process who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That left Mr. Ailes, who at the time was deeply distracted by his removal from Fox and the news media reports surrounding it, discussing his own problems as well as recounting political war stories, according to two people present for the sessions.”
  • CNN reports that the Trump campaign is ordering its surrogates to insist publicly that Trump won the first debate, even as the candidate himself seems to have no idea that anything is wrong. “Part of the problem, one source said, is that Trump doesn’t yet seem to grasp that he needs to expand his base of supporters to bring in new voters who are not yet sold on his temperament, policy positions or readiness to be president. When Trump was told Tuesday that he should do some things differently, he responded that his approach is what his base likes.”
  • The Associated Press reports that Trump appears to think everything’s going fine. “‘Why would we change if we won the debate?’ former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a key Trump ally and traveling partner this week, told The Associated Press…While his plan forward is far from set, Trump is not planning to participate in any mock debates, although he is likely to incorporate what one person described as ‘tweaks’ to his strategy.”

George Will: Donald Trump’s rise reflects American conservatism’s decay

It’s certainly possible that with a little more focus, Trump could avoid handing Clinton lines that she can use against him for the rest of the campaign, as he did when he not only admitted to paying no federal taxes but said proudly that it shows how smart he is. But the reason why the second debate a week from Sunday could go even worse for him is that it will be in a town hall format, which plays even more to Clinton’s strengths.

The audience for the next debate will be made up of undecided voters selected by the Gallup organization. They will ask the bulk of the questions with others asked by the moderators, including some chosen from questions submitted by the public on this web site. There are a few critical things to understand about this format, which has been used since 1992.

The first is that the questions asked by ordinary citizens are much less predictable than the questions asked by a single journalist moderator or a panel of journalists. While they’re almost always substantive, they often raise issues that haven’t been discussed much in the campaign, and can do so from unusual angles. That favors a candidate whose understanding of policy is not only deep but broad — in other words, someone who can give a lengthy exegesis on the Affordable Care Act, but who could also offer a few coherent sentences on the Law of the Sea Treaty if it were necessary. We know which candidate that describes.

Secondly, the setting of a town hall debate, with the candidates sitting and walking around amidst a group of voters, creates a different dynamic that Trump may not be attuned to. By many accounts, he’s itching to attack Clinton because her husband cheated on her, and he can’t stop himself from saying over and over that former Miss Universe Alicia Machado is contemptible because she gained weight. It’s one thing to do that when you’re talking to Bill O’Reilly or calling in to Fox & Friends, but just picture the cameras picking up the shocked and disgusted faces of women in the debate audience as he launches some of those insults.

Finally and most importantly, in a town hall debate we’re not only watching the candidates tell us what they think, we’re watching them interact with the people who ask the questions. The character of that interaction can be as important to our interpretation as the substance. You might recall the 1992 town hall debate during which a citizen asked, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” Answering first, George H.W. Bush took the somewhat confusing question literally, and struggled to answer her in a satisfying way as he looked uncertainly around the room, even growing defensive at one point (“Are you suggesting that if somebody has means, that the national debt doesn’t affect them?”). When it was Bill Clinton’s turn, he understood that she wasn’t really asking about the debt at all. He said, “Tell me how it’s affected you again?” as he walked over to get as close to her as he could. “You know people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes?” His eyes locked on hers, Clinton talked about how the state of the economy affected people he knew and the rest of the country.

E.J. Dionne: Republicans want to tame Trump, but he may be their party’s doom

What people remembered wasn’t the substance of the two answers, it was how Clinton immediately connected with that voter and seemed to care deeply about her and what she was worried about. This was the “I feel your pain” Bill Clinton, and voters loved it. What you may not realize is that while Hillary Clinton gets a lot of criticism for not being a natural performer and not being good at delivering a speech, this kind of exchange — between her and one voter, where she can make a connection with that person and relate their particular question to broader concerns — is something she’s really, really good at.

For instance, watch this clip from a town hall meeting during the primaries, in which a rabbi asks Clinton a very difficult and unexpected question about how someone in her position balances the need to be confident enough to be president and still retain humility:

In that moment, Clinton is engaging, thoughtful, personal, and candid (even if she’s still obviously considering her answer like any politician). To a great extent, this is the most natural place for her, where she can talk the substance of issues but also connect with people one at a time. People close to her often lament that the charming and charismatic Hillary Clinton they know in private doesn’t come through on the campaign trail, but one-on-one interactions are the closest approximation, even if there are millions of people watching.

Could Donald Trump answer a question like that one without coming off as a complete jackass? Or answer a series of questions from individual citizens about things that matter deeply to them in a way that makes it appear that he genuinely cares about them? Can he stand up in front of one person, look them in the eye for longer than a few seconds, and communicate some measure of empathy?

Steve Case: Why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton

Based on what we’ve seen from him so far, there’s little reason to think he can. That’s partly because it’s something Trump almost never does. Clinton does many campaign events in small groups, where she’ll meet with students or immigrants or business owners and have long conversations about what matters to them. Trump, on the other hand, seldom gets closer to voters than the distance between the first row and the podium at his rallies. But it’s more than lack of practice — it’s just not who he is. Whatever Trump’s talents, he’s not a people person. You don’t watch him talking to an ordinary Joe and say, “That guy really cares.”

All of that means that at the second debate Clinton will be right in her element, and Trump will be even farther out of his. Even if he works hard to prepare, it will be difficult for him to do much better than he did the first time around. From what we’re hearing, he could be headed for an outright debacle.

Memorable quotes from Clinton and Trump’s first presidential debate