Hillary Clinton

Well, the consensus is, Hillary won it. Right from the end of the first US presidential debate, which concluded around 12.30 Tuesday afternoon our time, the general opinion of the punditry and meeja was that the former secretary of state had given a poised and assured performance, which had worked well in comparison to Donald Trump’s less focused and more, erm, freewheeling effort.

That impression was strongest towards the end. After a relatively calm and respectful kickoff around issues of trade and the economy, which gave the impression that the encounter might be conventional, even dull, the back-and-forth began to fray, as Trump began to repeatedly interrupt Clinton and play the “anti-politics” card, accusing her of having had “30 years” to fix the things she was now criticising — economic decay, wage stagnation, poor terms of trade.

By the middle of the debate, as matters were switching to race and society, the personal attacks began to dominate, Clinton hoeing into Trump for his failure to release his tax returns, Trump returning fire with a reference to Clinton’s 33,000 “deleted” emails. By the last quarter hour, focused on national security and global issues, the debate came close to falling apart, as Trump repeatedly interrupted Clinton, while giving a mangled account of his support of “birtherism” — Trump using the Hillary camp’s dirt-digging investigation of it in 2008, with Trump’s five-year championing of the cause.

“Your response, Secretary Clinton?” “Well … just listen to what you just heard,” said Clinton, getting a laugh from the audience. It was this separation in styles, and Hillary’s command of the material and, well, basic sentence structure, that caused most pundits to score it for Clinton — even those who are pretty wedded to Trump. In the spin sessions on US news networks in the aftermath, Trump campaign figures such as comms director Kellyanne Conway resorted to the “he’s not a politician” claim, mobilising the anti-politics sentiment Trump had relied on for much of the encounter.

That’s a pretty telling response, and it may be that Trump’s scrappiness, repetition and willingness to be distracted — some of his last minutes were spent clarifying his public fight with TV presenter Rosie O’Donnell — will not do well for him, with some of the swinging voters doubtful about his personality, gravitas and competence in swing states such as Ohio and Florida. But on the other hand, I’m not sure that all, or even many of those people were listening for the best debating performance. Many of them were listening for something about the economy, and Trump gave them that – and managed to land some blows on Clinton regarding her past support for free-trade deals, all in the first 15 minutes.

Of course,  whether Trump has any real answers or not is beside the point for many such voters — they’re listening for any sign that the candidates recognise that there has been a collapse in the heartland. Clinton’s answers cannot fully satisfy because she was an enthusiastic free-trader for many years, and her campaign against TPP is muted at best — presumably because she is hoping it will get through Congress in the “lame duck” two months between the election and the inauguration of the next president in January. Clinton could then commit to making the best of it, and get thoroughly behind it in her first term.

That is what many people suspect of her. That is what is holding her back from breaking into a clear lead over Trump in Ohio, and more than a few points in Pennsylvania. And that is why the pundits’ assessment of how the thing went may not match the punters’.