To the extent that American presidential debates sway public opinion, help swing voters decide, or persuade observers that someone is fit to lead the United States, Hillary Clinton won the first debate. While she may have not done much to help her cause, Donald Trump did nearly nothing to his benefit.
It is questionable how much presidential debates really shift public opinion. Since first televised in1960, they remain the most watched event during the presidential campaign. While in the past famous scenes–such as how Kennedy won the 1960 debate over Nixon by looking more presidential, or when in 1992 George H.W. Bush looked at his watch and looked out of touch when he debated Bill Clinton seemed decisive, the best political science evidence is that the debates only shift a small number of voters. This year in a highly polarized electorate where there are few undecided or swing voters, the same can be said. Trump supporters will say he won, Clinton’s allies the same. Thus, for the few undecided voters the question is who won their vote, if either?
With the presidential race essentially tied, Trump and Clinton needed to do two things. First they needed to play to their political bases and get them excited to vote. Both candidates did that. Trump was aggressive and continued his rhetorical style that suited well during the Republican debates. He raised questions about Clinton’s honesty, stamina, and her views on some policy issues such as Iraq. Clinton sought to question Trump’s temperament, display her policy skills, and show she was more prepared to be president. Thus their political bases were pleased.
But if the issue was moving the swing voter in the critical swing states, Clinton did a better job. The swing voters–women, people of color, and those under the age of 30– found more to like with Clinton. She talked more policy, she appeared calmer, and she seemed prepared. Trump lacked focus, seemed to ramble, and he barely could string together a coherent argument. Moreover, Clinton simply was prepared and gave thoughtful answers even if you disagreed, whereas Trump gave troubling responses. He had no plan for ISIS or terrorism, his remarks about NATO left it member countries wondering if the USA would protect them, and his refusal to renounce first strikes with nuclear weapons did little to convince critical swing voters that he could be trusted as commander-in-chief. On merits, Clinton generally answered the questions, Trump avoided them or blustered.
Clinton also came out more truthful. Yes she had questionable answers about her denial in supporting free trade, but generally most fact checks gave Clinton the edge. Trump was not truthful regarding his stances on his support for the Iraq war and he was wrong on issues such as China and currency devaluation. Whether he lied or simply was uninformed is a matter of debate.
Finally, in terms of style, Trump did little to convince people he had the right temperament to be president. He f ought with the moderator, he shouted down Clinton. He simply displayed a style that did not win him any new friends. Clinton navigated the gender double-standards, generally avoiding looking too aggressive or passive. Whether she navigated the fashion police I leave to others to address.
Overall, Clinton should be judged the winner but whether it matters is yet to be seen.