Who Won The First Presidential Debate?

We are finally reaching the end of a very long US Presidential election season. In November 2016, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton will go head-to-head, with one being elected the next US President, In order to help the American public choose which candidate to support, the first 2016 Presidential debate was held on 26th September. Who won the first Presidential debate and what does this mean for the 2016 election?

Close race

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and New York-billionaire Donald Trump are perhaps the two most unpopular candidates in US history. Trump has a reputation for making outrageous statements, which are often interpreted as outright racist, meaning that in any normal US Presidential election, he would be performing very badly in public opinion polls right now. But many Americans do not trust Hillary Clinton as far as they could throw her, especially with the email scandal that has threatened her campaign from the outset, so the race is still anyone’s to win.

It is important to note that after the Republican and Democratic National Party Conventions were held earlier this year, it looked as though Trump would lose. According to the Huffington Post, the billionaire was trailing Clinton by roughly 8% nationally in early August, just after he made a massive mis-step by criticising the family of a US muslim soldier who died in service. But thanks largely to Trump’s new Campaign Manager, Kellyane Conway, Donald has resisted making too many inflammatory statements in the past few months and this has allowed him to recover ground in the polls. Going into the 26th September debate, Clinton was beating Trump by 47.6% to 44.1%.


During the debate, Trump landed a few hits. The Billionaire criticised his rival on a number of issues, from her supposedly weak-stance on Islamic State militants, arguing that Hillary has been fighting them all her adult life, to her decision to use a private email server as Secretary of State. Trump’s most effective attack saw him lambaste Clinton for her now-reversed support for the NAFTA free trade agreement, which he said was the worst deal ever. This point is bound to strike a chord with many liberals, who as a rule of thumb despise Clinton’s Wall Street connections and pro-rich economic stances.

Clinton’s strategy centred on casting Trump as a man who does not have the temperament to be President. She highlighted Trump’s past derogatory comments on women and his inability to resist responding to criticism with insults, also refuting his allegations that she doesn’t have the stamina for the job, by citing her extensive schedule as Secretary of State. Hillary’s most effective arguments saw her criticise Donald for refusing to release his tax records, implying he has something to hide and highlighting Trump’s long record of birtherism, a stance which he recently renounced, reminding voters of the overtly racist tones of the Republican’s election campaign.

The debate’s moderator, Lester Holt, did a somewhat decent job at holding both candidates accountable. Many critics cited this as an advantage for Clinton, as she is more prone to using facts than her rival, whose comments are often routinely debunked. Trump has since argued that Holt is a liberal who favoured Clinton. The billionaire also suggested that he himself was too soft on Clinton in the debate and that he might “hit Hillary harder” during the second debate. Trump’s gains in the polls have been attributed to his recent calmer attitude, so this may not prove a wise strategy.

Polls and press

So who had the winning strategy? According to snap polls carried out just after debate, public consensus was somewhat divided, although viewers seemed to narrowly hand Clinton victory. CNN/ORC and Public Policy Polling surveys both saw respondents name Clinton the winner, at 62% to 27% and 51% to 40% respectively. Meanwhile, Trump won the informal CNBC poll taken after the debate, beating his rival 61% to 39%. But for a multitude of reasons, these polls all have significant margins of error, so they cannot really be regarded as conclusive.

In contrast, US media largely named Hillary the winner. The New York Daily News indicated that Trump was a “grumpy loser,” the New York Times called him a “vacuous bully” and the Washington Post argued that he “did not appear ready to be President.” Even the famously right-leaning Fox News TV station said that the Republican “struggled,” “never took control” and “failed to exploit” the issue around Hillary’s emails during the debate, implying a lack of preparation. The ultra-right wing Breitbart news outlet, however, crowed that Trump “bludgeoned” his rival during the debate.

Narrow victory

And so it appears that Hillary Clinton won the first Presidential debate, but her victory was very narrow by all accounts. At this point, I doubt the debate has changed much. Clinton supporters probably still see Trump as a virulent racist, while Donald backers most likely still believe that ‘crooked Hillary’ deserves her Trump-appointed nickname. We have to wait until 9th October for the second Presidential debate and at this point, it looks as though there’s still everything to play for.

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