Amazingly for the polarised world of US politics, there’s near unanimous agreement that Hillary won the first of the Presidential Debates this week. Her mic-drop moments, and measured approach taking her through the whole 90 minutes, meant that an initially-reformed – for the first question, at least – Trump seems to have had his recent surge in momentum stopped in its tracks.
But it wasn’t just the clear difference in performance prep, and well prepared zingers which made the difference. Hillary’s research team had obviously been doing their homework. As Jonathan Martin of the NYTs noted, and Liz Jarvis-Shean, Obama’s former Director of Research, references, Hillary dropped no less than 19(!) bits of oppo in the first debate. On racism, tax returns and Trump’s business acumen, Hillary’s campaign dropped bomb after bomb on Trump – and he simply wasn’t prepared to bat it away.
The terrifying beauty of campaigns is that they can often swing on one bit of oppo which runs away – or one moment of careless stupidity. Every time Hillary fires one of her oppo bullets, she gives the media a chance to latch on and let it snowball to become something the American public can’t avoid, and which sets a narrative of ‘how can someone who did X possibly be elected President? That would be stupid!’. No one wants to be stupid.
More than that, every time Trump has to respond to one of these bits of research, he walks the tightrope of getting his answer wrong – of further implicating himself, or making his situation worse. Something he came dangerously close to when rebutting Hillary’s claims about his unpaid taxes – ‘that’s good business’. In other elections, a line like that would be a candidate’s downfall.
But of course, this is Trump. And whilst his persona and approach to this campaign gives him significant cover from statements like that, there’s no doubt that there’s always a limit of how much stupidity the electorate will accept. On November 8th, we’ll find out if he crossed that line.
But whatever the outcome, the one thing which is certain is Hillary’s preparation and research team this week helped her chances of winning.