Stylistically, it was a clash between the more incisive and prepared Clinton and Trump, who leaned heavily on instinct and combativeness.
Clinton, the Democratic nominee, sought to deepen doubts about Trump’s readiness to be president, while he tried to paint her as part of an ineffective political establishment.
Clinton fared better by a wide margin in a CNN/ORC poll in the immediate aftermath, and the media consensus also seemed to lean strongly in her direction. The debate may help her squelch the momentum Trump has been enjoying over the past month or so, as a once-wide Clinton lead has dwindled.
Still, the received wisdom about how debates will affect the polls can often be premature or simply wrong.
During the Republican primary process, Trump emerged unscathed from several debate performances — as well as other controversies — that had many commentators predicting his downfall. He may also benefit from the dynamic that past challengers have enjoyed from appearing on the same stage as incumbent presidents or quasi-incumbents such as Clinton.
From the off, Clinton hammered on the doubts about the celebrity businessman that have been revealed in poll after poll.
“You have to judge us. Who can shoulder the immense, awesome responsibilities of the presidency?” she said in the debate’s opening moments.
Later, she parried an attack by Trump by asserting:
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president and I think that’s a good thing.”
Clinton also invoked the memory of her father on several occasions, using her relatively modest upbringing to suggest she had an instinctive sense of middle-class struggle. The former secretary of State appeared to get under Trump’s skin by suggesting that his success in business was founded on money given to him by his father.
Trump delivered several lines that that will inevitably draw critical comment in the next 24 hours, and perhaps beyond. He denied having called climate change a hoax, which he has done. He also insisted once again that he had not supported the Iraq War, whereas he did in fact express such backing — albeit in a lukewarm fashion — in a 2002 interview with radio host Howard Stern.
At one point, he also asserted that Clinton had been fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “your entire adult life.” It was not immediately clear what he meant by that statement — ISIS came into being only earlier this decade — though he sought to frame it as a general indictment of an alleged ineffectiveness on the part of the Obama administration, in which Clinton served as secretary of State.
The issue of Trump’s skepticism about whether President Obama was born in the United States also reared its head again, despite the GOP nominee’s recent effort to settle it by saying he now accepts the fact of Obama’s birth in Hawaii.
“He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” Clinton said. “There was absolutely no evidence for it, but he persisted.”
Later, Clinton noted a number of Trump’s more derogatory descriptions of women, sounding a theme that has been pushed in her recent advertising.
Clinton stayed on offense for much of the 90-minute encounter. Some early data suggests that this could have helped her. The CNN/ORC instant poll immediately after the debate suggested that 62 percent of viewers believed Clinton won the debate against only 27 percent for Trump. The equivalent poll four years before had given Republican Mitt Romney a near-identical margin of victory over President Obama (67-25).
Forty-one percent of respondents in the CNN poll on Monday were Democrats, compared to 26 percent who were Republican.
There were moments when Trump did seem to have the upper hand, including when he pressed Clinton to defend her position on trade deals. Clinton had seemed supportive of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) while it was being negotiated but ultimately declared her opposition to it — at a time when she was coming under significant political pressure on the topic from her left-wing rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Trump suggested that, if she were elected president, she would seek to push the TPP once again, part of his broader argument that Clinton represents politics as usual, whereas he would bring a break with the status quo.
He sounded that theme on more than one occasion, saying during a later phase of the debate, regarding the former first lady: “Typical politician. All talk. No action. Sounds good. Doesn’t work.”
The controversy over Clinton’s emails surfaced only briefly in the debate — something that immediately provoked some criticism of moderator Lester Holt from conservative quarters. When it did so, however, she called her use of a private email and server at the Department of State a mistake — and Trump had an effective comeback.
“That was more than a mistake. That was done purposely. That was not a mistake,” he said.
But whether Trump quieted the doubts about him as a plausible commander in chief is a very open question.
Even setting aside the matter of his position on the Iraq War, his responses on foreign policy late in the debate seemed to lack focus. His insistence that his “temperament” is superior to Clinton’s is not accepted by most voters, according to opinion polls.
There is also a wildcard factor to debates, where quirks of behavior from the candidates can have an outsize impact, as occurred when Al Gore sighed ostentatiously during his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000, or when Richard Nixon appeared sweaty while debating John Kennedy in 1960. On Monday night, Trump’s repeated sniffing drew considerable attention on social media. That could all be forgotten in 24 hours, or become a story all of its own.