Donald Trump had one job: Don’t take the bait.
But he let Hillary Clinton get under his skin minutes into their first presidential debate Monday night, first by her suggestion that he owed his success to his father’s money, and he only got more agitated as the primetime debate at Hofstra University wore on.
Smiling, serene, egged on by each groan and grunt and interruption she goaded from her rival, Clinton provoked Trump again and again—over his refusal to release his tax returns, his years-long “racist lie” about President Barack Obama’s birthplace, his foreign-policy views, and his treatment of women. Meanwhile, Trump drew some blood on the issue of trade, specifically calling out crucial battleground states in the process, but found little on Clinton’s most vulnerable fronts: e-mail, family foundation and policy crises of her tenure as secretary of state.
“Trump took the bait virtually every time she attacked him,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “And his responses to the attacks weren’t strong.”
The Democratic presidential nominee, whose significant lead in the polls dwindled to a dead heat this week, was seeking to exploit a major weakness of her Republican rival. Surveys say large numbers of Americans, majorities even, doubt Trump has the appropriate temperament to be president.
“Clinton has clearly been able to get under his skin time and again,” said Brian Walsh, a former Senate Republican leadership aide.
Trump started the debate relatively subdued, but grew increasingly testy as the night went on—and as Clinton’s jabs kept coming. He used negative emotion words like “terrible,” “stupid,” and “disaster” about 50 percent more often at the end of the debate than the beginning, according to a Bloomberg Politics analysis with Quantified Communications.
At one point, Clinton echoed one of the most memorable lines from the Democratic convention in July: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
Trump quickly interrupted: “That line is getting a little bit old, I must say."
“It’s a good one, though,” Clinton retorted. “It well describes the problem.”
A CNN snap poll found that 62 percent of voters who watched said Clinton won the debate compared to 27 percent for Trump.
His son Donald Trump, Jr. defended his father after the debate: “There’s a time for temperament, and there’s a time where you actually have to defend yourself,” he said.
And yet, Democrats celebrating her victory on a climactic night predicted to draw record viewership of Super Bowl proportions did not go as far as to say that her victory was assured.
Her broad critique of Trump's character extended from the beginning to the end of the debate, pressing her advantage on temperament. Clinton went into the night with “a clear goal” to show herself “steady in command and to disqualify Trump,” said Ben LaBolt, a former spokesman for Obama’s 2012 campaign. “She did both without ever getting frazzled.”
“He was rattled and looked far from presidential,” said Jim Manley, a former communications strategist for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. “She won.”
The expectations game had Trump as the underdog going in, and before he began to lose his cool he went after Clinton successfully on one of her weakest points with working-class voters from both parties in battleground states: U.S. jobs lost to other countries since the implementation of free-trade agreements that she and her husband former President Bill Clinton had backed since the 1990s, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he noted Clinton supported before opposing in last fall.
Manley acknowledged that Trump’s trade arguments gave white working class voters in manufacturing-heavy Rust Belt states “at least a hint of a reason to vote for him,” but predicted that “most people will see through his phony argument.”
Trump underscored what he said were the impacts of those policies in lost jobs and wages in two states in particular: Ohio, where Trump is ahead, and Michigan, where Clinton remains on top. It was a rare issue on which Clinton failed to respond with a compelling counterargument.
“I think my punches on trade were very good,” Trump told reporters on the rope line when asked about his strongest moment in the debate.
U.S. Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said the debate “went very well” for Trump. “On key issues like trade,” he said, Clinton “never had any counter to what Donald Trump was saying.”
Both rivals returned to their most successful attack lines from their party nominating conventions this summer. The question with 42 days and two more presidential debate is which proves more effective among undecided voters in key swing states.
Mark McKinnon, a Republican political strategist and former adviser to President George W. Bush, said the “general advantage” went to Clinton while “there was not a knockout on either side. They’re both going to live to fight another day.”
“I don’t think he lost any votes tonight,” he said of Trump. “I think his base is with him. I’m not sure he added them. But the birther stuff and the women’s stuff will galvanize her base.”
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said one group with whom Trump may be more vulnerable after the debate is suburban women—already a sore spot for the blustery New York billionaire—because of his demeanor with Clinton on stage.
“What I am asking myself is how female voters feel about the domineering attitude Trump has had to Clinton,” Heye said. “Will there be a backlash? I'm thinking of an undecided woman in the suburbs of Raleigh. What does she think? I just don't know.”
Obama 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe similarly doubted Trump demonstrated the temperament necessary to reach skeptical voters.
“If you’re an undecided voter, a woman suburban voter in Colorado or Virginia or Florida, I can’t imagine that that performance led you to support Donald Trump,” he said. “And he’s losing in this election. He’s got to pick up votes and I don’t think he did anything today to change the trajectory.”
Trump turned to quips to minimize Clinton's critiques, sometimes with awkward results.
When Clinton said, “I have a feeling by the end of this evening I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened,” Trump shot back, “Why not?” Promoting his new hotel on the same street as the White House, he said, “If I don’t get there one way I’m going to get to Pennsylvania Avenue another.” Speaking of an epidemic of violence in Chicago, he called for more law and order, saying he had property and investments there. And when Clinton suggested Trump was too cozy with a Russian government that may be responsible for hacking Democratic Party officials, Trump said that "maybe" it was the Russians or maybe it was a random person “sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
After the debate, Trump spokesman Jason Miller argued that polls have been moving in his direction recently, and that he has more time to pull ahead.
“The next debate is the foreign policy debate, it's the national security debate, so a number of things that didn't come up tonight will come up then.”
—With assistance from Terrence Dopp and Adam Tiouririne.