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Debates take time to digest

Eight takeaways from Monday night’s debate:

– Don’t put any stock in quickie post-debate polls. Even if they were methodologically sound, the bigger problem is that those polled don’t really know what they think yet. People watch a debate, think about it, listen to commentators discuss it, and talk with family and friends. They’ll have more considered opinions in a few days.

– On the two issues we know are most important to voters – jobs/economy and national security – Donald Trump did fairly well. The top issues came up early in the debate, when Trump was at his best, so it’s fair to say Trump was strongest on the biggest stuff.

– If you’re going to stumble, do it at the end. Trump’s problems came later in the debate, when Hillary Clinton and moderator Lester Holt hit him with various semi-scandals – birtherism, taxes, old statements on the Iraq War. Trump was lucky that it all happened late, when audiences are generally thought to be a little less engaged with the show. They also involved issues that are not at the top of voters’ concerns.

– Trump’s tax problem won’t go away until he releases his returns. He can probably put birtherism behind him, but on the tax question, Trump is defying a long tradition of presidential nominees. Polls show about two-thirds of Americans say he should release the returns, and Monday’s debate made clear that in the absence of actual evidence, Democrats will ratchet up their Harry Reid-style charges that Trump paid no taxes, gave nothing to charity, or did something equally bad. Trump will continue to look like he’s hiding something.

– Fact-checking failed. At one point in the debate, Clinton said, “Please, fact-checkers, get to work.” But when Holt tried to do it, the results weren’t pretty. For example, Holt tried to correct Trump on the issue of stop-and-frisk, and Trump’s response was closer to the (complex) set of facts than Holt’s. On another occasion, Holt told Trump that “you had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion,” when the point was a) legitimately debatable, b) probably too complicated to discuss in the brief time allotted for it in the debate, and c) not terribly enlightening absent a similar discussion of Clinton’s position on the war. Just as the skeptics said, fact-checking on the fly proved a risky business.

– Holt did not collude with the Clinton campaign. He just appears to think like nearly everyone else at his (very high) level in the media pecking order. Groupthink, not collusion, is the biggest threat to interesting debate questions.

– If a candidate wants to discuss something, he or she will have to bring it up themselves. Holt’s performance proved that no candidate can depend on any moderator to bring up even the most important issues. Does anyone think Obamacare – the Obama administration’s signature accomplishment now sinking toward crisis – deserved a little discussion Monday night? How about immigration? They’re huge issues that fit the topic of the evening, yet the moderator ignored them. Trump should not have. The debate showed why Trump will have to be as aggressive as Clinton in defining his own issues if he hopes to succeed in the two remaining debates.

– If you’re a journalist, don’t trust your instincts. I thought Trump won the first 30 minutes of the debate and Clinton won the last hour. But what do I know? I have come to learn over the years that my personal grading of a debate might not bear any resemblance to the voters’ reaction. I have come out of various debates thinking that Candidate A won only to learn that a large majority of voters strongly believed Candidate B prevailed. The voters’ reaction is what counts, and they usually have a good reason to react as they do.

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