Donald Trump defeated sixteen other candidates in order to win the Republican nomination. Hillary Clinton struggled for months to hold off a Bernie Sanders insurgency. Though she had been convincingly ahead in polls in the weeks after the Democratic National Convention in July, that lead has been slipping into the single digits in most battleground state and national polls. Donald Trump had extremely low expectations to meet before the debate last night and lost. Why? He didn't just lose the debate last night. He lost it in the weeks and months leading up to it.
The first issue was the format. This is the first time he has had to go one-on-one in a debate. In all the Republican primary debates there were always at least two other people onstage with Trump, and sometimes as many as nine. Trump was able to jump in to a conversation when he felt like it, and fade into the background and stay quiet when he didn't.
The other thing to remember is time. In the Republican debates, Trump could answer with a 10 or 30-second soundbite and that would suffice. Here, he might have to talk potentially for as long as two minutes to answer a question. (Former Romney campaign manager Stuart Stevens tweeted, "Trump brought 20 minutes of material to a 90 minute show.")
In the days and weeks leading up to the debate, multiple stories were published about the two candidates' respective debate preps. This one by the New York Times is particularly interesting to re-read with the benefit of hindsight from Monday night's debate. At the time I first read it, I was skeptical of this and other accounts of Trump's slacker approach to debate prep, thinking it was campaign spin to lower expectations. After what we saw, it's now obvious that wasn't spin -- it was the truth.
He didn't prepare, and it showed. Several of his responses were garbled word salads of different ideas -- his response to the question about first use policy of nuclear weapons was a particularly bad example. He thought it would be a good idea to criticize Hillary Clinton for doing debate prep and she effectively turned that argument on its head and made it one of her best lines of the night.
Since his birther public relations stunt almost two weeks ago, Donald Trump has largely retreated to friendly conservative media like Fox News and not subjected himself to a press conference or an interview with a serious journalist. Comedian Bill Maher refers to this as "the Fox News Witness Protection Program." By doing so, he hasn't subjected himself to the kind of rigorous questioning he might expect in the debate, and also deprived himself of an opportunity to try potential responses or lines of attack.
Both candidates had a live camera pointed at them the entire time. It picks up facial expressions, posture, body language, little things which can unintentionally convey a message that speaks volumes. Two examples: Al Gore's sighs and George H.W. Bush looking at his watch. Remember: the camera is ALWAYS on, and the camera NEVER lies. In the split screen shot, Donald Trump had mannerisms and facial expressions which made him look less than presidential. The side-by-side contrast in demeanor and presentation between him and Clinton was almost as striking as the comparison between who was prepared and who wasn't.
During the debate, Trump was focused and on message during the first 20 or 30 minutes, particularly on the subject of trade. Clinton laid several traps for him, and he walked into pretty much every single one of them. (As conservative writer David French tweeted, "After the first fifteen-twenty minutes, it was like the SS Trump hit the iceberg, then backed up and hit it again just because.") One of the most memorable lines of Clinton's convention speech was "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons." This is precisely what she set out to prove, through a series of subtle jabs at his business and political record which he couldn't resist and felt compelled to respond to. He took the bait hook, line and sinker almost every time.
Besides all these things, there is the candidate himself. Another memorable line from Clinton's convention speech was, "There is no other Donald Trump. This is it." Donald Trump is a 70-year-old man who has run his business empire as he damn well pleases for most of his adult life and has never run for elected office. What this means is he has never been accountable for anything or to anyone, and he acts accordingly. He is also very petty, and will not let the slightest criticism or attack go unanswered. His ego won't let him not have the last word in an argument -- whether in an interview, a debate, a campaign event, or on Twitter. Having watched him since he declared his candidacy last summer, he is a notoriously undisciplined candidate, with no filter, self-restraint, impulse control, or ability to self-edit.
This is precisely what and who we saw on Monday night. Now the question becomes if he is capable of self-correction and preparing for the next two debates properly.