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.
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 chance of 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.
But Trump made it through the rest of the debate with a relatively good performance — or at least, so I thought. He was oftentimes meandering but fairly measured, and he was effective at pressing Clinton on Obamacare and her email server, for instance. The key term, however, is “relatively.” I’ve covered enough debates to know that other than in the really obvious cases, it can be hard to judge how voters will perceive a performance. So you grasp on to what you can find: prediction markets, which began to show Trump rebounding about halfway through the debate; real-time reaction from focus groups; and the sentiment of other journalists.
This inevitably introduces the possibility of groupthink and various other biases, such as judging a candidate’s performance relative “to expectations” (i.e., relative to the media’s expectations, not the voters’ expectations) instead of in any absolute sense. Once expectations were lowered to the point that we in the media were speculating about whether Trump’s own running mate might drop out, any half-decent performance was bound to look good.
It’s not clear that voters judge debates in the same way, however. A CNN poll of debate watchers found that even though most voters thought Trump exceeded expectations, 57 percent of them nevertheless declared Clinton the winner, compared with 34 percent for Trump. A YouGov poll of debate watchers showed a much closer outcome, but with Clinton also winning, 47 percent to 42 percent.
These instant-reaction polls actually do have a correlation with post-debate horse-race polls: The candidate who wins the former usually gains in the latter. Perhaps Clinton’s win was modest enough that this will be an exception, especially given that the sentiments of pundits and television commentators (which sometimes matter as much as the debate itself) were all over the map.
So suppose that we call the debate a draw. Suppose, furthermore that the tape the Post published didn’t damage Trump. Instead, let’s say the polls look about the same a week from now as they do today, with Clinton holding a 5 or 6 percentage point lead. Maybe Clinton’s numbers were a little inflated after the first debate and Trump has even gained a point or two, somehow.
That’s still a fairly awful position for Trump with time running out, undecided voters getting off the sidelines, early voting already taking place in many states and little or no ground game to help provide a strong finishing kick. There’s the third debate, but without an extremely strong performance in that one, Trump is probably left hoping for an “October surprise” or a big polling error (not impossible, but it would have to be larger than the 4-point margin by which Brexit polls missed).
Or, obviously, things could get worse for Trump. And some “October surprises” — such as further leaks of tax returns or embarrassing comments caught on tape — could work against him. (They also wouldn’t be that surprising.) His attempt to make an issue of Bill Clinton’s past, which his campaign seems determined to pursue, could also backfire.
In the end, your assessment of Trump’s chances comes down to the same consideration as with a falling stock: How sound are the fundamentals? Is Trump the equivalent of a beleaguered blue-chip that still has lots of hard assets? In Trump’s case, the most valuable asset is probably possession of the Republican Party ballot line, which theoretically ought to be worth something given the circumstances of the race. Or was the whole business a sort of confidence trick, which was bound to implode once people began to lose faith in it?