Monday, October 10, 2016

The Second Debate Probably Didn’t Help Trump, And He Needed Help

The second presidential debate on Sunday night was a strange one, with Donald Trump appearing to be on the brink of a meltdown in the first 20 to 30 minutes and then steadying himself the rest of the way. But here’s the bottom line: Based on post-debate polls, Hillary Clinton probably ended the night in a better place than she started it. And almost without question, she ended the weekend — counting the debate, the revelation on Friday of a 2005 tape in which Trump was recorded appearing to condone unwanted sexual contact against women, and the Republican reaction to the tape — in an improved position.

At times during the past two weeks, but particularly on Saturday afternoon as prominent Republicans were denouncing or unendorsing Trump one after another, it has seemed like Trump’s campaign is experiencing the political equivalent of a stock market crash. By that I mean: There’s some bad news that triggers the crash, and there’s also an element of panic and herd behavior, and it becomes hard to tell exactly which is which. At some point, the market usually finds its footing, as the stock has some fundamental value higher than zero. But it can be a long way down before it does.

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At roughly the 20-minute mark of Sunday’s debate — about the point at which Trump said that he’d appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton and that she’d “be in jail” if someone like him had been president — it seemed prudent to wonder whether Trump’s campaign was over. I don’t mean over in a literal sense (it would be almost impossible to replace Trump on the ballot). But over in the sense that we knew the outcome of the election for all intents and purposes, to a higher degree of confidence than FiveThirtyEight’s statistical models — which gave Clinton “only” about an 80 percent chanceof winning heading into the debate — alone implied. (The polls — and therefore the models — have not yet had time to capture any effect from the Trump tape revelations.)

After all, the past two weeks have gone about as badly as possible for Trump. After having drawn the race to a fairly close position, Trump took one of the most lopsided defeats ever at the first debate in New York on Sept. 26. Then he engaged in a weeklong battle with a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, which the Clinton campaign gleefully egged on. Then the story broke that Trump had claimed losses of more than $900 million in 1995 and perhaps had not paid federal income taxes for 18 years.

But wait, there’s more! After a relatively effective vice presidential debate for Mike Pence earlier in the week — although it didn’t appear to have helped Trump in the polling — The Washington Post dropped its story about the tape Friday afternoon. By Saturday, Republican defections were getting bad enough that Trump was fending off rumors that Pence would quit the race. And then Trump began his Sunday evening at a makeshift press conference that featured three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment or sexual assault and a fourth woman who was raped by a man Hillary Clinton represented at trial in 1975. The Bill Clinton sex story might be of interest to Drudge Report readers and parts of Trump’s base, but most Americans are tired of hearing about it, at least in an election in which Bill Clinton isn’t running for office. And then in the first 20 minutes of the debate, Trump brought up the Bill Clinton accusations again and threatened to imprison Hillary Clinton, without showing any of the contrition that Republican leaders were calling for.

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