How Donald Trump Won the Debate

Debate Watch on a TV Getty

Frank Luntz utilizes an unusual apparatus to definitively evaluate who won a political debate: He takes a small sample of voters, hooks them up to an electronic device, turns on a TV, and carefully tabulates all the moments when they click “like” and “not like” while a politician speaks.

It’s a very visual, very TV-friendly presentation by Luntz, with demonstrative metrics, plenty of scientific-sounding soundbites, and all sorts of ready-made clips of the candidates saying and doing whatever Luntz deems their best and worst.

It’s also entirely meaningless.

If elections were decided like a prizefight and judged on a 10-point “must” system, then Luntz’s system would have merit.  (For those who stopped watching boxing when Iron Mike Tyson became a cannibal, here’s a quick refresher: During a professional prizefight, three judges score who won each round, with the victor getting 10 points and the loser getting nine.  If the fight doesn’t end by knockout, then the judges’ cards are tabulated after the final round, and the boxer with the most points is declared the victor.)

But that’s not how elections work.

Elections aren’t decided by adding-up a series of little things; they’re decided by our lasting, long-term impressions of each candidate – i.e. who they are, why they’re running, what they believe in, and what they care about.

They’re decided by big things.

Consider: We don’t cast ballots immediately after a TV debate.  Instead, we turn-off the television and go to bed.

This is critically important when determining who “won” a presidential debate, and the reason why Luntz’s methodology is a useless evaluator of a candidate’s performance: It evaluates the wrong metrics.

Donald Trump’s goal isn’t to win a second-by-second comparison with Hillary Clinton.  It’s not to out-jab Clinton on policy points.  And it’s not to get random voters to click one way or another on Luntz’s machine.

Trump’s goal is to position his candidacy for victory in November.  Nothing more, nothing less – and if you’re missing this distinction, then you’re analyzing the wrong metrics.

Trump’s genius is in branding.  He’s probably the best branding expert in modern political history.  He’s astonishingly good at it.

Jeb Bush is “low energy.”  Donald Trump is a “winner.”  Ted Cruz is “lyin’.”  Hillary Clinton is “crooked.”  Marco Rubio is “little” and a “choker.”

We could argue about the accuracy of his branding, but that’s irrelevant.  Political campaigns are a perception-driven enterprise.  And in the first presidential debate, Donald Trump out-branded Hillary Clinton.

It wasn’t even close.

Throughout the GOP primaries, all the so-called political experts on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and the major networks were dumbfounded: How is it that Trump could perform so poorly in the dozen-or-so TV debates, yet continue to win when ballots are cast?  The New York billionaire never won a debate in the eyes of these experts – but inexplicably kept winning elections!  What gives?

It’s because Trump recognizes that the goal isn’t to “win” a second-by-second, or minute-by-minute, or point-by-point policy debate.  It’s to brand yourself – and also brand others – in a way that positions your candidacy for electoral success.

In the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton won a healthy plurality of the minute-by-minute political barbs, especially in the second-half.  She had Trump on the defense.  She stuck to her talking points like her husband sticks to an intern; Trump went off-message and was prone to rambling.

So if you were scoring this debate like Luntz did – or if you were scoring it like a Las Vegas boxing judge – then Hillary Clinton won in a landslide.

But ask yourself this question: How did Trump brand himself?

Well, he’s certainly the nontraditional candidate on the ballot.  He’s new.  He’s an outsider.  He’s exciting.  He doesn’t talk or act like a traditional politician.  He’s a businessman – and he strongly believes that America is heading in the wrong direction, and desperately needs change.

How was Hillary Clinton branded?

She’s the politician who has been talking about the same issues for 30 years… without solving any of them.  She’s a member of the political elite.  She talks and sounds just like all the other politicians.  She’s smug, smart and self-satisfied, and clearly believes that those of us who are not members of the political elite are beneath her.

Yes, Hillary Clinton is prepared – but she’s prepared to continue the status quo.

Now, ask yourself: After the debate, which of these aforementioned brand attributes were cemented?

For Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump… pretty much all of ‘em.

In politics – and in branding – it’s not what you say, but how you make people feel.

Trump understands this.  He’s a genius at destination branding.

This is why Trump tends to do poorly when people like Luntz grade a debate mere moments after it’s over, but does much better a few days later, when voters can reflect on their impressions: When we remember all that what was said and done, we recall the emotive elements more clearly than the second-by-second comparisons.

Earlier in the primaries, it didn’t really matter if Jeb Bush out-talked Donald Trump on policy points.  What mattered was the long-term branding that Trump cemented: Jeb Bush is a boring, low-energy legacy politician, whereas Donald Trump is the fresh-thinking outsider, a savvy, successful businessman, and an Alpha Male with an insatiable desire to make America great again.

A similar fate befell Ted Cruz – which was remarkable, because the Texas Senator is an enormously skillful point-by-point debater.  But because of Trump, Ted Cruz – the Tea Party Darling, and stalwart, lifelong conservative who had won arguments before the Supreme Court – was transformed into Lyin’ Ted,  a nasty, petty, argumentative fink who doesn’t get along with anyone and can’t get anything done on Capitol Hill.

(Again, this isn’t intended as a knock on Cruz or Bush; it’s simply noting the potency of Trump’s branding.)

Political pundits in the mainstream media love to bloviate about a candidate’s gender-gap with women, presumably because most of the time, it’s the Republican candidate who is trailing.  (You’ve probably noted that these pundits rarely mention when the Democratic candidate has a similar-sized gender-gap with males.)  But the 2016 election is all about a different kind of gap.

This is the gap that will decide the election: An empathy gap.

Long after the debate is over, you “feel” that Trump understands that the country is headed in the wrong direction.  You “feel” that Trump is genuinely outraged by America’s decline, and come hell or high water, he’ll dedicate his presidency to making America great again.  You “feel” that Trump is an authentic, one-of-a-kind outsider with unbridled bravado. You “feel” that Trump will shake-up the status quo and implement real, long-lasting changes.  From immigration to trade, from waging war on ISIS to renegotiating trade bills, from creating jobs to restoring law and order, Donald Trump “feels” what we feel.

That’s the brand he built – and is continuing to build.

It’s an eye-popping contrast to the brand Hillary Clinton is building (both on her own and with Trump’s support): Hillary is the ultimate DC insider who knows everything better than we do.  She looks down on people like us.  Yes, she knows all of the issues and all of the problems facing our country… but only because she’s been talking about them for 30 years, instead of actually solving them.  She deserves the White House, dammit… and shame on those racist, sexist, xenophobic “deplorables” for making her work so hard for it!

Her utter lack of empathy is Mrs. Clinton’s fatal flaw: We don’t care how much she knows, because we know she doesn’t care about us.

On a visceral, emotive level, we’ve felt this all along about Hillary.  It’s why a junior senator from Illinois came out of nowhere and beat her in 2008.  It’s why an over-aged socialist nearly toppled her in 2016: Say what you want about Bernie Sanders, but he was 100 percent authentic in his beliefs – because he genuinely desired to transform America.

But Hillary Clinton is all about Hillary Clinton.  Always has been.  Always will be.

Donald Trump won the debate, but only if you know what you’re looking for.


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