Political Science Faculty Offer Reactions to First Presidential Debate

Ben Berger, Carol Nackenoff, and Keith Reeves

From left to right: Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger, Richter Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff, and Associate Professor of Political Science Keith Reeves.

Immediately following the first presidential debate between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump, members of the College's political science faculty shared their expert commentary and opinion.

Associate Professor of Political Science Keith Reeves believes that Clinton came across as the more knowledgeable, confident, and emphatic candidate. “She did a superb job; clearly aiming to move 'the needle' among independent, Republican suburban women, and millennial voters,” says Reeves. “What was particularly striking for me was the juxtaposition between Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump. He will clearly need to do better going forward: on policy substance, composure, and temperament."

Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger echoed Reeves’ thoughts, but is unsure how much it will matter in the minds of most voters.

“Political scientists, intellectuals, and policy analysts are going to note how much more thoroughly prepared Hillary Clinton was than Donald Trump, and how much less he seemed to care about facts. I share those impressions, but I doubt that the first debate will change many minds," he says. 

"Ardent Trump supporters know who he is and what he does; they know that he plays fast and loose with the facts and that he dominates by setting his own terms. Apparently Trump misinterprets Teddy Roosevelt’s 'Bully Pulpit,' as if Teddy were endorsing the first word rather than the second," he adds. "Trump backers won’t view the first debate negatively."

Berger believes that the night’s real prize will be a small segment of independent and undecided voters, and those who will turn out only if mobilized beyond their present engagement.

“I’m guessing that after the first debate, Clinton will fare somewhat better than Trump with that small but crucial group. Trump seems unlikely to lose any committed voters or to gain any others. Clinton may be able to move the needle at least a bit.”

Berger notes that Trump missed several openings to question Clinton on subjects such as Benghazi and her email server, which resonate with his supporters.

“It will be interesting to see whether he prepares more carefully next time; he has an opportunity to score more points and, on the other side, to appear cooler, calmer, and more presidential. But preparation has not been the Trump way thus far,” he adds.

Richter Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff​ believes that each candidate will be able to walk away from this first debate and claim they did well, and their own base will believe them.

“Clinton stayed focused on the questions somewhat better than did Trump, which was especially apparent late in the debate and on foreign policy questions," she says.

She agrees with Berger that the debate may not matter much in the minds of voters.

“If the past is any indication, this debate will probably not be a game changer, regardless of what the pundits say about winners and losers in this debate," she says. “For those who already have a candidate preference, their minds are unlikely to be changed. For those who don’t have a pre-existing preference, and who have little prior knowledge of the candidates, the press spin after the debate may matter as much or more than the debate itself. But broadcast news has every reason to hype the debate as the next Gunfight at the OK Corral; they will anoint winners and losers and continue to follow the horse race rather than the substance of the policy disagreements, since these don’t as easily produce drama.”

Nackenoff thought the format of the debate was satisfying for the millions of viewers who watched into the debate, many of whom she believes are tuning in because they are “hoping for and expecting something akin to a WWE wrestling match.”

“Each candidate was permitted a two-minute opening statement, and then candidates were allowed not only rebuttals but an opportunity to interact directly for about 10 minutes. This arrangement was far more satisfying than in a number of past presidential debates, where little direct interaction was permitted,” she says. She also enjoyed the split screen, open mic format, which she says was useful to see each candidate’s reaction to what his/her opponent was saying.