Women have seen this Trump before
To many women, the Donald Trump who debated Hillary Clinton was painfully familiar. They’ve encountered men like him all their lives: fathers and husbands, boyfriends and brothers, bosses and teachers.
Faced with the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination, Trump treated her with palpable disdain. He smirked and sneered, erupted and interrupted (39 times in all, including nine times in one 2-minute period). He used barely disguised code words like “stamina” to imply that a woman, poor dear, simply couldn’t hack it as president.
But here’s the irony. The missile Trump aimed at Clinton wounded him instead. His performance demonstrated that he — not his rival-was unsuited for the Oval Office.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group among 21 undecided voters in Pennsylvania. Sixteen said Clinton had won the debate; only five backed Trump. In a CNN focus group in Florida, 18 of 20 swing voters picked Clinton as the winner. In a CNN flash poll, 62 percent said the Democrat had done a better job; only 27 percent favored Trump.
“Donald Trump just got nuked,” Luntz told reporters, “and I don’t know if he can recover from this debate.”
Of course he can. Luntz was over-reacting. Trump’s core support reaches about 44 percent, according to the latest Real Clear Politics averages. Those folks are going to stick with him, no matter how badly he got “nuked.” And Clinton faces huge problems of her own, especially a party base that fails to find her exciting or inspiring. Barack Obama she is not.
Still, the debate could prove to be an important moment in the campaign. On the eve of the event, according to the ABC/Washington Post poll, 53 percent of registered voters said Trump was not qualified to be president; 58 percent said he lacked the temperament to govern effectively; 55 percent doubted his credentials to be commander-in-chief.
Trump’s main objective was to ease those concerns, fill the profile of a president, reassure wavering voters, pass a threshold of credibility.
He clearly failed the test. When Trump asserted that he has a” much better temperament” than Clinton, the audience at Hofstra University openly snickered, and so did Luntz’ swing voters. That comment, reports Real Clear Politics, earned Trump “the lowest overall score of the night among the focus group, with all participants rating it very negatively.”
Garrett Thacker, a 30-year-old in Galloway, Ohio made a similar point to the Wall Street Journal: “I feel the way he talks to other people, the way he addresses other people, can be extremely rude and extremely disrespectful, and I don’t think that’s the temperament we should be looking for in a president.”
Trump’s problem is particularly acute with one key voter group: college-educated white women, especially those living outside cities like Philadelphia and Cleveland. Many are natural Republicans --Mitt Romney won the cohort by 6 points four years ago — but in the ABC/Post poll, Clinton beats Trump by 25 points with this group, 57 to 32.
Her margin was 10 points only a month ago, and Trump made few converts with his dismissive debate demeanor. “Trump needed to conceal his temper ... and appear ready to be president,” wrote conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin. “He didn’t. There were too many instances in which the real Donald Trump showed through.”
Clinton has another post-debate target as well: the coalition that elected Obama but refuses to fall in love with her. They likely never will. But she doesn’t need them to go gaga; she just needs them to appreciate the stakes in the election. She needs them to realize that the election is a choice between two real, flawed candidates, and neither one is named Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein.
The debate could crystallize that choice. Only two candidates stood on that stage. Only one will name the next Supreme Court justice. Who do you want that to be? The bully or the nerd? The good girl or the bad boy? There is no third option.
Before the debate, the political landscape was littered with warning signs for Clinton. The polls were tightening. The trend line was against her. Even states that once seemed safe — Colorado, Pennsylvania — were suddenly in play.
It’s still not clear whether the debate will reverse that trend, or even halt it. But one thing is clear: Trump did not pass the credibility test, especially with well-educated women. They saw him for exactly who he is — the man who never took them seriously.