Trump and Clinton Meet in First Presidential Debate

 High Stakes Encounter As The Campaign Grinds To Its Closing Six Weeks
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First presidential debate
Date: Mon. Sept. 26, 2016 at Hoftstra University in Hempstead, NY.

Time: 9:00-10:30 p.m. Eastern time without commercial breaks.

Lester Holt, Anchor, NBC Nightly News.

The debate will be divided into six time segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator and announced at least one week before the debate.

Subject to possible changes because of news developments, the topics for the September 26 debate are as follows, not necessarily to be brought up in this order:

  • America's Direction
  • Achieving Prosperity
  • Securing America
The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.

Source: CPD

Note.The first presidential debate was originally scheduled to be held at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.  However, with 68 days to go the University informed the CPD that it would not be able to host the debate.   Wright State President David R. Hopkins made the announcement on July 19 citing costs and security concerns.  Hofstra University, an alternate site, became the venue.


Expectations were that this first presidential debate would have the largest audience of any American presidential debate, with talk that it might reach 100 million.  A Univision press release declared the showdown in Hempstead is "the most anticipated presidential debate in recent U.S. history."

The expectations game played out before the debate.  Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer noted in a Sept. 22 memo, "With so much riding on this moment and a wealth of experience working in her favor, Hillary Clinton has no excuse not to turn in a near-flawless performance."  One challenge for Clinton was to avoid coming across as pedantic, lecturing or condescending (see Al Gore).

For Trump, the expectations were lower.  Throughout the campaign he has generally shown a weak command of policy detail.  In his eleven primary debates there have always been a number of other candidates on the stage (from 3 to 9) allowing Trump to mix it up; here the focus would be squarely on Trump and the "deeper discussion" could expose policy deficiencies.  While it was expected that Hillary Clinton would be able to run circles around Trump in the policy realm, there was the possibility that he could connect with viewers on some of his bigger points in a way that Clinton could not.  Trump is known for his combative style.  Hillary Clinton was sure to try to get under his skin, and he needed to make sure he didn't get carried away in his tendency to hit back.

Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson made a concerted effort to reach the Commission on Presidential Debates' 15-percent threshhold, and debate organizers were prepared to have a third podium on stage, but on on Sept. 16, the CPD announced that he, as well as Green Party nominee Jill Stein, had fallen short (+). 

In the lead-up to the debate there were many reports about how Clinton was preparing assidiously and Trump was taking a more relaxed approach.  There was also a fair bit of discussion about the extent to which the moderator should play a fact checking role.

Most Observers Say Clinton Won
The debate was marked by sharp exchanges.  Moderator Lester Holt frequently kept out of the way and let the back and forth between the candidates proceed. 

Clinton went on the offensive from the second question, referring to Trump's tax plan as "trumped up trickle down," and needling him about his wealth, stating, "He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be and that everything will work out from there."  At one point Clinton noted, "I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing." 

Trump showed a penchant for making interruptions and interjections during the course of the debate.  Several times he took on Clinton on her experience stating: "Typical politician. All talk, no action. Sounds good, doesn’t work. Never going to happen. Our country is suffering because people like Secretary Clinton have made such bad decisions in terms of our jobs and in terms of what’s going on."  Later in the debate Trump said, "Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience. We have made so many bad deals during the last — so she’s got experience, that I agree."
Conventional wisdom is that Trump had a decent first half hour of the debate, but his responses in the later part of the debate were more rambling and he missed opportunities to challenge Clinton.

After the debate Trump spent time in the spin room, which appears to be unprecedented for a major party nominee (this is normally left to surrogates).  Trump complained that his microphone had been defective; several days later on Sept. 30 the CPD issued a statement, "Regarding the first debate, there were issues regarding Donald Trump's audio that affected the sound level in the debate hall."

Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, stated after the debate that, “The research is clear: this campaign is one of the most uncivil in recent history and the first debate continues to degrade our political discourse. Last night’s debate, no matter your political view, showed just how important it is for this country to revive civility (+)."

Reporters at working in the media filing center.

Breaking Records

According to The Nielsen Company, 13 broadcast and cable networks aired live coverage, drawing an estimated 84 million viewers.  The previous record of 80.6 million viewers was set by the debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on Oct. 28, 1980.

   Graphics by Twitter                            

Twitter reported that this was the most tweeted presidential debate ever.  According to Twitter, the most tweeted topics during the debate were: 1. The economy, 2. Foreign affairs, 3. Energy & environment, 4. Terrorism, and 5. Guns.  The top retweeted Tweet during the debate was a Donald Trump Tweet from Nov. 6, 2012 in he which stated, "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."


NBC's "Saturday Night Live" season premiere (Oct. 1)
opened with a parody of the debate featuring Alec
Baldwin as Trump and Kate McKinnon as Clinton.