Did an Adequate Debate Showing Save Trump's Campaign?
Just as news was beginning to break last Friday afternoon on Donald Trump's 2005 "hot mic" comments to Billy Bush, my family and I were hitting the road for a weekend trip to the mountains. Our destination was Estes Park, Colorado for a couple days of breathtaking fall colors, hiking, wild animals, and great food.
To ensure that our retreat was filled with quality time, we decided (at my wife's suggestion) to keep all electronic devices turned off for the duration of the trip. No smartphones (except for camera usage), no games, and no television. So, as we made our way up Big Thompson Canyon, and I flipped the radio station off of Fox News on Sirius, I figured the commentators' early analysis would be the last political talk I'd hear until Sunday night.
Boy was I wrong.
Everywhere we went in the high country (whether it was Estes, Lyons, or Rocky Mountain National Park), people were talking about the Trump controversy. It was the topic of open conversations in restaurants, shops, parking lots, and even the public library. I've never witnessed anything like it.
The area attracts a lot of tourists — diverse individuals (ethnically and economically) from all over the country, and there was a pretty solid consensus among them: Trump was a pig, and he had just lost himself the election. Game over.
Among them were self-identified Republicans, like the young man from New Hampshire who had been working at a high-ropes course in Estes over the summer. I overheard him talking to a co-worker about how he'd been trying for a long time to convince himself to vote for Trump, but could no longer do so.
When I injected myself into their conversation (in the spirit of commiseration over this election cycle), I was surprised to learn how engaged and knowledgeable he was in the political arena. He described himself as a fiscal conservative, which effectively took a sledgehammer to my perception of the stereotypical millennial. He's the kind of voter that Trump desperately needs, but was alienated due to the candidate's lack of decency.
Upon hearing that I was a political writer, a woman I met at a book-signing event expressed a similar attitude, as did a man who noticed the #NeverTrump bumper sticker on my car, and asked me if I now felt "vindicated."
I told him that I've felt vindicated every day for the past nine months.
Of course, what I heard over the weekend were just anecdotal samplings of public sentiment. It all could have been every bit as meaningless as the Internet polls I took exception with in a column last month. But it felt like something bigger. It felt like a sea change.
When I returned from my trip, I found that prominent Republican politicians weren't the only ones deserting Trump. Friends of mine, who had been reluctant supporters of the GOP nominee (having deemed him to be the lesser of two evils), had finally had enough. They were taking to social media to publicly disavow their previous support, and were even apologizing for what they essentially described as an error of judgement. They were done making excuses for a man they didn't particularly like in the first place. He had crossed his last line.
Personally, I was a bit surprised by how deeply Trump's 2005 comments effected people. Sure, his words were disgusting. Sure, they were indefensible. But that's nothing new, and certainly nothing unexpected. Throughout this campaign, Trump has been saying sick, ridiculously offense things. He has presented himself as a narcissistic man-child, and this type of rhetoric has become his trademark. Some would even say it's what won him the GOP primary.
Yet, just a month out from the election, the release of this particular audio reportedly even prompted Paul Ryan, the RNC, and running-mate Mike Pence to consider pulling their support of Trump. It doesn't get much more serious than that.
Going into last night's debate, the campaign was hanging on by a thread. Trump's earlier Twitter rant against the Republicans who were abandoning him even had some observers predicting that he would use his time to burn down what was left of his candidacy (and the fractured GOP along with it).
In the opening minutes of the debate, it almost looked as though he was prepared to do just that. After holding a bizarre press conference just hours earlier with alleged victims of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Trump appeared dazed, unprepared, and even defeated. His demeanor soon evolved into the same type of scorched-earth, highly-personal lambasting we saw during the primaries.
But about a third way into the debate, Trump seemed to collect himself. He began addressing the questions with more substance. He drew attention to Clinton's various areas of weakness (something he had failed to do in their first meeting). He even managed to get in some smooth one-liners that were fairly effective.
Clinton faltered, and by the end of the night, Trump had at least pulled even. He possibly even won the debate on points, though few would categorize the contest as a compelling, particularly impressive showing from either candidate. Still, by beating the expectations game, Trump didn't do himself any further harm. He may have even stopped his campaign's hemorrhaging...for now.
Predictably, Trump's cheerleaders in the conservative media insisted that their guy's performance had completely redeemed the nominee.
Newt Gingrich tweeted, "Trump is doing so well no Republican should ever again mentioning getting a new candidate. Trump is more than holding his own."
Laura Ingraham tweeted, "All the Republicans who backed away from @realDonaldTrump look really really stupid right now."
Mike Pence weighed in to congratulate Trump on his "win," and reaffirmed his devotion to his running mate.
Even Fox News' Brit Hume (who's as fair and balanced as they come) saw Trump's performance as a clear enough win to get him past the 2005 audio controversy.
There haven't been any notable defections from the Trump Train since last night, and it doesn't appear we'll see any more unless more dirt comes out on the GOP nominee (which is very likely to happen).
Taking note of this, National Review's David French tweeted, "It would be a shame if Trump doing better in his debate (but not even winning) stopped GOP politicians from finding their moral backbones."
Along those same lines, I have to wonder if Trump's passable debate performance can really erase the damage caused by an unspeakably lewd soundbite that absolutely rocked the country's political psyche over the weekend.
I sure wouldn't think so, but in an election year where the latest news-cycle seems to induce collective amnesia over all previous ones, who knows? I haven't ceased to be surprised for the past 16 months.