THE MORNING PLUM:

The college educated white voters whom Donald Trump needs to win over widely see him as bigoted, sexist, and running a racist campaign. He has been unmasked by the new sex tape as a disgusting pig (words I chose because Trump himself has publicly applied them to his female targets), likely exacerbating that problem, particularly with female voters. He’s seen an exodus of support from the same Republicans who stuck by him even through months of racism, hate, and abuse directed at groups and select individuals alike.

Faced with this problem, Trump had two choices: he could focus his second debate performance largely on showing contrition and trying to reassure voters alienated by his character and temperament, in order to slow or reverse his slide. Or he could try to wrestle Hillary Clinton down into the mud with him and hope for the best. He mostly chose the latter. Virtually everything Trump said and did appeared geared towards that one goal. And, while Clinton’s performance had its flaws, Trump’s effort was a miserable flop.

Last night, the Trump campaign escorted multiple female accusers of Bill Clinton into the debate audience. But the Post reports that Trump’s advisers, and Trump himself, had hatched a plan for a much more confrontational scene, a plot that was thwarted. The idea was to position Bill’s accusers in a far more prominent position in the Trump family box:

The campaign’s plan, which was closely held and unknown to several of Trump’s top aides, was thwarted just minutes before it could be executed when officials with the Commission on Presidential Debates intervened. The commission officials warned that, if the Trump campaign tried to seat the accusers in the elevated family box, security officers would remove the women, according to the people involved, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential.
The gambit to give Bill Clinton’s accusers prime seats was devised by Trump campaign chief executive Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner, the candidate’s son-in-law, and approved personally by Trump. The four women — three of whom have alleged Bill Clinton sexually assaulted or harassed them years ago — were to walk in the debate hall at the same time as the 42nd president and confront him in front of a national television audience.
Donald Trump has brought former president Bill Clinton’s past infidelities and unproven allegations of sexual assault to the forefront of his campaign against Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that he was a vocal supporter of the Clintons when the scandals first broke. (Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)

The basic idea here, which Trump pushed forward during the debate itself, was for him to show the nation that Hillary Clinton was the enabler, and attacked the victims, of a sexual predator. The Post fact checking team has all the context and backstory you need to understand just how absurd a gambit this was. The claim that Hillary was Bill’s enabler is itself strained by the actual chronology and record. What’s more, at the time, Trump repeatedly dismissed or minimized the allegations against Bill, and even demeaned some of his accusers as ugly losers, which of course is far more in keeping with the Trump we all know than is his absurd pose of being their chivalrous avenger.

But beyond all that, this episode also neatly reveals what Trump’s larger goal here really was: To create a sh*t show, in hopes of drenching Clinton with the same sh*t that Trump has spattered himself with in the minds of voters, probably indelibly.

Many of the incendiary things Trump said were geared towards accomplishing that goal. There was the long litany of claims about the 1990s, in which Trump asserted Bill’s conduct had been “far worse” than his on the sex tape, called Bill the greatest abuser of women in U.S. political history, and claimed Hillary had “attacked” those women. There was Trump’s vow that as President, he would enlist a “special prosecutor” against Hillary over her emails, because she should “be in jail.”

It’s obvious that the Clinton campaign grasped that Trump’s paramount goal here was to drag Hillary down into the pig slop with him. Thus, she declined to respond directly to the claims about the 1990s, and instead immediately pivoted to a discussion of all of the other targets of Trump’s abuse and bigotry (she referenced his birtherism, his ridicule of a disabled reporter, his attacks on the Khan family and the Mexican-American judge, and his affection for belittling women). The message was that this isn’t about Clinton herself; it’s just another piece of evidence in the broader case that someone who is so bigoted, misogynist, hateful, and pathologically abusive is unfit for the presidency.

If Hillary was successful in this regard, and I think she probably was, then the most important residual effect of all this will be that the national audience was reminded of the sex tape revelations and of all of the unhinged, hateful behavior Trump has displayed for the past year, even as Clinton mostly avoided getting hit by the sh*t spray. Note Trump was actually not that apologetic about the sex tape. Trump apologized for his “words,” but then repeatedly dismissed them as nothing more than “locker room banter.” What’s more, Anderson Cooper pressed Trump no less than three times to say whether Trump had ever done the things he had boasted about before he finally denied it, almost grudgingly.

There is a lot of chatter to the effect that Trump has “stopped the bleeding.” But this phrase needs to be refined. If it means, “Trump fired up demoralized hard-core GOP base voters with an exciting show of fight, which will make it harder for GOP lawmakers to continue abandoning him, requiring them to instead say he took steps towards righting his campaign,” then, yes, Trump probably “stopped the bleeding.”

But as Brian Beutler notes, if anything, Trump doubled down on his core boorishness, mostly to deepen his bond with his supporters, because in the end, those are the only voters he knows how to connect with. Indeed, if Trump’s “bleeding” is defined by the fact that the college educated white voters he must win back continue to see him as racist, misogynist, and fundamentally unfit for the presidency, then it’s unlikely Trump stopped that bleeding.

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* POLL SUGGESTS TRUMP DIDN’T REALLY STOP THE BLEEDING: A post-debate poll from CNN underlines the point above. It finds that Clinton was seen as the winner by 57-34. But note these metrics:

By a wide margin, Clinton was seen as the candidate who cared more about the needs and problems of the audience members who asked the questions (67 percent said she did vs. 21 percent who picked Trump). She also was seen as better addressing concerns that voters had about how they would handle the presidency (59 percent said Clinton did better on that score, 32 percent Trump).
In an incredibly contentious debate, Trump was far more often named as the candidate who spent more time attacking his or her opponent (68 percent Trump to 16 percent Clinton, with 15 percent saying both spent equal time attacking), and Clinton held the edge as having the temperament to serve effectively as president (64 percent chose Clinton, 27 percent Trump).

In every one of these categories, large majorities of college educated whites picked Clinton, and those voters overwhelmingly saw Trump as the one who spent more time attacking the opponent. In other words, Clinton may have kept sowing doubts about Trump while mostly avoiding the sh*t spatter.

Yes, this is only one poll, and CNN notes the sample has a slight Democratic tilt. But I predict other polls will bear it out.

* CLINTON WON AMONG UNDECIDEDS: A post-debate poll from YouGov found it much closer, with Clinton being declared the winner by 47-41. But note this:

Clinton narrowly won undecideds 44 percent to 41 percent. She was also considered “more Presidential” by a 57 percent to 31 percent margin.

There probably aren’t many undecided voters left, and there were probably very few watching, but still…let’s see if this is borne out by other polls.

* TRUMP LIED…AND LIED…AND LIED: The Post fact checking team rounds up all of Trump’s whoppers, which included distortions about Obamacare premiums; the falsehood that Clinton laughed at a rape victim; and the lies that Clinton started birtherism and that Trump opposed the Iraq War.

Note this conclusion: “His Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, on occasion made a factual misstep, but it didn’t even compare to Trump’s long list of exaggerations.” This basic imbalance is now being widely acknowledged by news orgs that were previously reluctant to do so.

* CLINTON LEADS IN ANOTHER NATIONAL POLL: The new NBC News/Survey Monkey Tracking Poll finds Clinton leading Trump by 46-41 in the four-way, and by 51-44 in the head-to-head match-up. Note these findings, on the impact of the sex tape:

Before the recording was made public, 64 percent of likely women voters said they did not think Trump respects women. After the recording was made public, 69 percent of women said they did not think Trump respects women, including 53 percent who said he does not respect women at all.

And this polling was all taken before Trump’s bullying, hectoring performance last night.

* TRUMP’S WAS ‘DISGUSTED’ AND ON A ‘HIGH BOIL’: The New York Times overview of the debate summarizes a few select debate exchanges this way:

Mr. Trump sought to bait Mrs. Clinton into lashing out, just as she did to great effect during their first debate. But she kept her composure, while Mr. Trump often seemed disgusted and running at a high boil.

But Trump “defied expectations,” so it’s all good.

* TRUMP COMPLICATED LIFE FOR HIS FELLOW REPUBLICANS: E.J. Dionne gets this just right:

His aggressiveness gave him more control over the second debate than he had in the first, and his belligerence is precisely what his base loves about him. By the end of the encounter, he had done little to make the contest genuinely competitive, little to reassure Republicans who are thinking of jumping ship, but more than enough to rally his strongest supporters. They will remain an army of resistance to moves against him inside the GOP.

As I noted above, this is the real sense in which Trump “stopped the bleeding.”

* AND PAUL RYAN ‘DISCUSSED’ YANKING TRUMP ENDORSEMENT: Politico reports that Paul Ryan is privately discussing withdrawing his endorsement for Trump:

Ryan has publicly and privately grown dismayed by the tone and tenor of Trump’s campaign, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of his thinking. And Ryan has reviewed with close advisers whether to abandon the GOP nominee. The discussions occurred after the bombshell video Friday of Trump talking in predatory terms about his sexual exploits, but before the second presidential debate Sunday night.

Let’s all pretend to be surprised when we learn that Ryan somehow saw just enough in Trump’s debate performance to prevent him from pulling the trigger.