UGA debate guru: In third round, Hillary Clinton scores a decisive win over Donald Trump

Edward Panetta, professor of communication studies at the University of Georgia, has been the director of the Georgia Debate Union for 27 years.

He just sent over this assessment of last night’s third presidential debate in Las Vegas between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump:

Performance of Hillary Clinton:

As was the case in the previous debates, Hillary Clinton exhibited a forceful non-verbal presence.  She was disciplined and did not regularly interrupt Donald Trump.  When Donald Trump interrupted her, she did a better job of finishing her answers than she did in Debate One.  She was measured and forceful in these exchanges. This practice will pay dividends with undecided voters who may be increasingly concerned with Donald Trump’s treatment of women and were looking for someone to stand up to him.

While many will highlight her answer to the election question as a high point in the debate, I would point to her Russia answer.  This was a remarkably effective non-answer to a question about open borders based on the Wiki-Leaks releases. Clinton pivoted away from a discussion of open borders with Latin America to an assault on Trump’s relationship with Russia.  She forced Trump into a position in which he repudiated the intelligence apparatus of this country.  This exchange bolsters her core campaign narrative: Donald Trump is not suited to be Commander-in-Chief.  This was a remarkably well-prepared and delivered answer.

She also was able to avoid answering the question about President Bill Clinton’s personal behavior.  Instead, she delivered a sharp response about Trump’s behavior. The ability to effectively avoid answering a question is important in debate, and Clinton was masterful at it in this exchange.  In both cases she put extraordinary pressure on her opponent to justify his statements and behavior.

As for weaknesses in her performance, this was another opportunity lost for her to connect with the working class voters in the Rust Belt.  She did not push back when Trump chronicled the impact of NAFTA on manufacturing jobs on a couple of occasions. While she made a few efforts, Clinton was less effective than she was in the Town Hall debate in sharing personal stories about people she has met during the campaign.  The format of this debate was not as conducive to the use of this rhetorical tactic. Having a citizen-questioner in the second debate made it easier for Clinton to connect with voters.

Performance of Donald Trump:

One of the objectives of the Commission on Presidential Debate Series is to build confidence in the democratic process.  Donald Trump’s unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of the electoral process, when questioned by Chris Wallace, undermines this operating assumption. Ironically, this answer was similar to the moment he had in an early Republican debate when he indicated that he might not support the Republican nominee.

The difference is that the context of a general election presidential debate demands one answer – a candidate will accept the outcome of the process.  Questions about the legitimacy of the electoral system are always left to surrogate speakers. Trump’s answer to this question effectively undermined the good work he did early in the debate.  This story will lead the post-debate coverage and will crowd out other messaging for the next few days.

His answers on the Supreme Court and abortion were well-articulated claims that resonated well with conservative voters who tuned into the debate.  He was better in the first 30 minutes of this debate than at any other point in the debate series. Early on, he worked to identify with rust belt workers by referencing the negative impact that NAFTA had on the economy.  He effectively linked the drug problems in states like New Hampshire to the national immigration problems.

As was the case with the first debate, this format does not play to Trump’s strengths.  In both instances, he was unable to sustain a line of argument during the later segments of the debate.  He performed more effectively in the Town Hall debate with the brief two-minute response periods and with a variety of citizens asking the questions.  Last night’s format afforded Hillary Clinton several opportunities to jab at Trump (China steel, his father and Trump University) and as he became increasingly agitated during the debate, the quality of his answers eroded.

Throughout the debate he did a good job prosecuting the policy failures and limitations of Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, he did little to outline his agenda to “Make America Great Again.” He did not provide any evidence to support his claim that his economic policy would produce jobs.  Additionally, he failed to outline solutions to the problems in the Middle East. When asked to provide a case to vote for him at the end of the debate, Trump launched into yet another attack on Clinton.  This was a prompt for a Reagan-like, morning-in-America moment, and he failed to share an optimistic vision with the voters.

Donald Trump’s insistence on regularly interrupting Hillary Clinton will not play well with voters with gender concerns. As was the case in the first debate, he struggled with controlling his visual presence and interjections during the debate.  As the debate progressed, his pronounced non-verbal reactions to Clinton’s answers signaled that a more emotional and less reasoned Trump response was in the offing than was exhibited in the first half-hour of the contest.

Specifically, his reference to Clinton as a “nasty woman” will further erode support with women. And, his answer to the sexual harassment question has a troubling conspiratorial undertone.  He indicated that the nine women who have pressed claims against him were acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign. While this form of argument will play well with supporters, conspiracy-based appeals often erode the credibility of the speaker for many audience members.  Absent the election answer, many would be pointing to his answers here as a turning point in the debate

Assessing the outcome:

While by many measures, Donald Trump performed more effectively than in either of the previous presidential debates; this was Hillary Clinton’s most decisive win.  Rather than the story revolving around how Trump will improve the country, the answer to the election question will keep the campaign focused on Trump’s statements and actions rather than his vision for the country.

For Donald Trump to make up ground in the campaign the focus of the debate needed to be on the desire for genuine political change in the country. Rather, the debate highlighted Trump’s gender problems and his potential repudiation of the election process.  This is not where his campaign wanted to be at the end of the debate with less than three weeks left in the election.

More debate coverage:

Photos: Trump vs. Clinton in final debate

Trump campaign struggles with fallout over his refusal to commit to election results

Immigration question ends up a Russian question in Clinton, Trump debate

Hillary Clinton scolds Senate for holding up Supreme Court nominee

Issues: Clinton vs. Trump on policy

Polls: Election polls in U.S. and Georgia

Map: How Georgia went from blue to red

Money Race: Georgia donation tracker

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.