Who won the first presidential debate? Let’s examine the crazy night

The first of three presidential debates, hosted by Hofstra University, is officially a wrap, and it was an intense night of back and forth blows revolving around national security, terrorism, the economy, and the nation’s future. Surprisingly enough, since Republican nominee Donald Trump is the one famous for being highly confrontational, both candidates went on the offensive and offered aggressive criticisms of each other, but who won the first presidential debate?

Historically, Americans have always perceived presidential debate winners by candidates’ appearances, mannerisms, and whether or not they appear composed and affected by their opponent. Appearances certainly skewed perceptions of who won that notorious 1960 presidential debate between the confident, glowing John F. Kennedy and the perspiring mess that was Richard Nixon.

A candidate also appears to “win” or at least score major points in a debate if they’re on the offense — that is, if they’re able to drop facts that directly and obviously refute something their opponent just said or sharply counter major policy ideas their opponent has been campaigning on. It also looks like they’re doing well if they answer the moderator’s questions with confidence, whether or not their answer actually does, indeed, answer the question, and so long as the moderator doesn’t point out some egregious, factual error in what they’ve just said.

That being said, watching the debate, Hillary Clinton came out the clear winner.

Hillary Clinton
CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without stooping to interrupt Trump at every turn, as he did to her, and in the process not appearing anxious and desperate like her opponent did, Clinton sharply turned the tables on the media’s narrative of her as shady and untrustworthy, highlighting the weak nature of Trump’s excuses for not releasing his tax returns (because, FYI, you can legally release them even if you’re being audited).

She also cited evidence of his tax evasions, and managed to simultaneously suggest that 1) his tax plans would disproportionately benefit wealthy Americans like himself, and 2) he probably isn’t as rich as he claims to be, which was a significant blow since we all know how badly Trump wants us to believe he’s rich.

Debates aren’t exactly famous for changing Americans’ perceptions of candidates, but Clinton was successfully able to steer the dialogue away from her shadiness and connections to big banks and economic elites, and put the focus on Trump. So much has been made of the dealings of the Clinton Foundation and her email scandal, and both controversies certainly matter. But her ability to calmly take responsibility for her mistakes yet bring attention to the scandals of her opponent almost certainly helped her image, at least a little bit, with the media as an untrustworthy politician.

Candidates are, naturally, expected to pitch their plans and platforms, and yet, since Clinton was the only candidate on stage who really has any of those, she stood out by offering concrete plans on policing and improving race relations where Trump opted to belittle communities of color and take conflicting stances on gun control. Trump’s actual policy ideas voiced during the debates were limited to tasteful little bits like, “In order to prevent jobs from leaving this country, we have to stop them from leaving” (insightful!) and “The community relations in Chicago are bad. I have property there, it’s really bad” (nice to know!).

That being said, Trump did sneak in jabs at Clinton, seizing on famous, fiscally conservative narratives putting her on the defensive for accusations that her tax plan would obscenely raise taxes and drive corporations to move overseas. Trump also countered Clinton’s obvious edge in terms of political experience by skillfully conceding, “Hillary has experience. But it’s bad experience.”

But ultimately, where Trump visibly and repeatedly lost his cool, Clinton maintained a smile and demeanor that pretty much screamed “cool, calm and collected” the whole night. She simultaneously stuck to discussing policy issues while also highlighting Trump’s flaws and weaknesses, and she stuck the landing.

Pundits considered this debate particularly critical due to recent polling that showed Clinton’s lead over Trump ebbing away, but how much public perceptions of who won a debate really matter and affect the outcome of the election, is a debate of its own. The public consensus in 2012 was, overwhelmingly, that Republican nominee Mitt Romney had defeated President Obama, and we all know how that went. But at any rate, there’s two debates left and, of course, the election. We’re just getting started.