Last night’s third and final presidential debate cemented Hillary Clinton’s frontrunner status in an encounter that was depressing to watch for what it said about today’s politics and the likes of Donald Trump.
The headlines in America have focused on his answer refusing to commit to accepting the result. Having lived through Brexit, seen the triumph of the ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ school of campaigning, and the rise of a social media debate on both left and right that has no problem saying black is white, the Republican nominee reached for all the same conspiracy theories, attacks on supposed media bias and the smears of opponents that we are well familiar with.
Clinton had two very strong moments last night. The first was contrasting her thirty years in public service with the last three decades of Trump’s life, pointing out that while she was in the situation room as Osama Bin Laden was killed, he was presenting Celebrity Apprentice.
And the second was precisely getting to him crying foul on whenever he does not get his way, down to his Twitter rants when that very same show did not win an Emmy due to bias in the judges. Now, given Angela Lansbury has been nominated 18 times and never received a single award, I might be willing to accept the last one.
But, of course, the broader conspiracy theory stuff is designed to achieve two things: show that despite being a billionaire property developer from New York, he is not part of the establishment. Second, and more worryingly, it is about motivating some of the more extreme elements of society to get behind his campaign, unleashing forces most campaigns would reject.
There is no doubt Trump has improved across the three debates but he has ultimately been exposed across the 270 minutes of prime time television to the extent that, despite a strong first couple of segments last night, by the end he had almost merged into Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live caricature.
But while Paddy Power may already be paying out on a Clinton victory, her Brooklyn-based campaign team will be determined to ensure there is no complacency and for good reason. Clinton is now in the carrying-a-glass-vase-across-a-polished-floor phase of the campaign. One slip could be fatal. Although Clinton’s poll leads in the battle ground states are consistent, they are often in polls that have a margin of error of as much as four points.
Turnout, as ever, will be crucial. Expect to see repeated messages about how just a few dozen voters not turning out in a bunch of precincts could make all the difference.
Clinton’s campaign team will keep a tight discipline on where the money, surrogates and troops are deployed to ensure she crosses that winning post of 270 electoral votes, hopefully picking up a couple of additional states like Arizona and North Carolina from Obama’s 2012 result.
The advantage for the Democrats is that there are more possible routes to that victory line. For Trump, he has a few must-win states like Florida or Ohio that if he is not picking those up, there is no viable path to the White House.
Optimistically, this is where the lack of ground game from the Trump and his reliance on a Republican machine that is in reality more set up to defend the House and Senate will let him down
Pessimistically, we know that he has no trouble controlling the media megaphone – despite his claims of bias – and the one message he did get the better of Clinton on during the debate was the section on open borders and immigration. His hope is keeping the 2012 Romney voters and adding on those traditional post-industrial states with exactly the same sort of messaging that saw the Leave campaign win over Labour voters in their millions.
One thing last night’s debate confirmed is that he does not really know how to talk to anyone other than angry white men. From his answers on a women’s right to choose and the supreme court through to his only use of Spanish being to say there are a lot of ‘bad hombres’ in the country, Trump is unable to grow his voter pool enough.
In less than three weeks, this will all be over. Voting has already started in many states. Hopefully the result will be one Trump does not like but has to accept. Until then, we have to hope that the political unpredictability of the last two years has not made it all the way to determining the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.