US presidential debate: who won, was it any good, were there any surprises?

We asked seven Irish Times journalists and commentators to stay up and give us their verdicts

Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton clash in the third and final US presidential debate in Las Vegas.

 

Noel Whelan, columnist

How did this debate compare to the previous two?

This was a much more substantive debate. It was not nearly as nasty as the last encounter. It had better policy content than the first debate. The format and the skill of the moderator Chris Wallace meant that the focus was on the stark contrast between the candidates’ positions, on immigration, on abortion, on gun control, and on foreign policy.

Were there any surprises?

It was a surprisingly well-mannered debate, especially for the first 40 minutes. Trump didn’t interrupt at all until Clinton provoked him by characterising him as Putin’s puppet

What was the key moment?

There were two key moments. The first came about an hour in when the focus was on fitness to be the president. The moderator led off by asking Trump, “Why would so many different women from so many different circumstances” come forward to make allegation about you? Trump was unconvincing in his denials, saying the women were merely seeking fame or had been put up to it by the Clinton campaign. Clinton then pressed her advantage, was very passionate on the point and ended with the line of the night “Donald thinks belittling woman makes him bigger, it just makes him a bully.”

The most significant moment for follow up from the debate was Trump’s refusal to say that even if he loses he may not accept the result of the election. That was very unpresidential.

Who won, and why?

Clinton won again. More than she did in the second debate but not by as much as she did in the first. She was fearless in pursuing her opponent, on Putin, on the Trump Foundation, on his tax returns on everything. She was more assertive. She was negative but not nasty. This was the last chance Trump had before a prime time audience to change the momentum of this campaign, He didn’t do so. Instead Trump compounded his difficulties.

Una Mullally, columnist

How did this debate compare to the previous two?

It was certainly more structured, with the form of the debate designed to actually focus on issues and policy. It was tense and tetchy and cutting and on occasions Trump doubled down, especially with his “I’ll keep you in suspense” line about whether or not he’ll accept the election result.

Were there any surprises?

Trump’s “hombres” clanger (in reference to Mexican immigrants) was disastrous, and his graphic rhetoric on abortion was reprehensible. But the surprise was he wasn’t as much as a dumpster fire as usual – by his standards. He focused on attacking Clinton constantly and went for the emotional broad brush strokes that colour his dystopian hysteria. Of the three debates, this was Trump’s best performance so far. Yet the debate was still ugly and confrontational. Clinton remained remarkably composed throughout and attacked better than previously.

What was the key moment?

Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the election result was certainly one. Another was Clinton’s monologue juxtaposing her experience versus Trump’s inexperience nearly an hour into the debate, displaying her readiness to be commander-in-chief. “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger” was also a big quote of the debate, along with “we have undocumented immigrants in America paying more tax than a billionaire”. Turns out debate prep works. But do facts even matter when Trump denies things even he has said?

Who won, and why?

Clinton. Trump was forceful and actually seemed prepared, but he lost key arguments, and when drawn on specifics pivoted badly and meandered. Trump’s interjection of “such a nasty woman” summed up another ugly night in the campaign. I watched in a packed bar in New York with Americans who can’t wait for this all to be over.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, foreign affairs correspondent

How did this debate compare to the previous two?

Going into the first debate, the gap in the polls was tighter and Trump had the benefit of low expectations. Now, all these weeks later, his declining poll ratings have put him under real pressure. It showed. He looked tired and initially, by his standards, comparatively muted. I thought he performed well in the opening stages. But the tone shifted half an hour in. Clinton needled him on Putin’s support for his candidacy, prompting Trump to revert to type and lash out. From that point, the gloves were off. Voices were raised. The conversation flowed quickly back and forth. A seven-point lead in the polls could have made for a flat debate and encouraged Clinton to play it safe. As it turned out, I thought we got the most revealing debate in the series.

Were there any surprises?

It was surprisingly substantive. The moderator, Chris Wallace, did well to begin with serious policy questions on the Supreme Court, gun rights and abortion. It set the tone for a debate which, while it inevitably had its share of bluster and personal insults, covered a lot of ground, from the economy and Islamic State to entitlements and immigration. Despite all the evidence so far, I still expected Trump to use the last debate to make more of an effort to pitch towards the middle. If anything he veered more sharply away from it.

What was the key moment?

“I will look at it at the time.” It has been a strange and dark election, but a candidate refusing to say he will accept the result still made for a remarkable moment.

Who won, and why?

Given the state of the race, the bar was set at a different height for each candidate. Clinton needed to hold steady, avoid a clanger and look the part. Trump needed to play a blinder. I think the Clinton campaign will be the happier of the two this morning.

Damian Cullen, assistant news editor

How did this debate compare to the previous two?

Whatever happened to sitting down for a US presidential debate? The final debate, as far as I remember, is traditionally seated, and that affects the dynamic. Everything about the build-up to this one, from the families of the two candidates not exchanging pleasantries beforehand; the candidates not shaking hands again on stage; and both campaigns insisting on podiums rather than chairs, signalled this was going to be another accusation-driven debate.

And, in parts, it was. But, in truth, it was the most civil, policy-driven of the three debates.

A low bar, but at least it was cleared.

Were there any surprises?

I like Chris Wallace and the moderator did a great job – like a good referee, keeping himself out of the game as much as possible, but stepping in strongly when necessary. He didn’t even allow a peep from the audience. The biggest surprise was there was more discussion about actual policies by the candidates than in the previous debates put together. Trump gave more specific information about what he would do if elected than he has during the entire campaign to date. While it wasn’t particularly surprising, one of the big talking points over the next few days, and even weeks, will surely be Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the result of the election if he loses.

What was the key moment?

Clinton was handed an early opportunity to get out in front of the Wikileaks controversy, and she took it, going on the offensive and challenging Trump to condemn Russian interference in the US election. It was significant, because it diminished one of Trump’s strongest cards. And it signalled Clinton’s strategy not to sit back and try to glide through the debate – which must have been tempting. She fought her corner and was as well prepared as ever. She also spent an uninterrupted minute taking Trump down for his treatment of women which was – while there was nothing new in it – quite powerful. Trump had a solid night, but without a standout moment.

Who won, and why?

Las Vegas is famous for turning someone seemingly hopeless down on their luck into a huge winner with the last throw of a dice. Trump desperately needed a big win in the final debate. Anything less was going to be a victory for Clinton.

He certainly did not get that, which means it remains: advantage Clinton.

Chris Dooley, foreign editor

How did this debate compare to the previous two?

It was much more policy-focused and less about personal attacks, although these did become a feature as the debate progressed. The first segment, on the future of the Supreme Court, was the most serious and mature exchange of the three debates between the two. It was a classic Democrat v Republican stating of positions, Clinton making the case for a society built on progressive and liberal values, her opponent arguing for conservatism.

Were there any surprises?

A couple. That it was a more mature debate was a surprise after the mud-slinging fests that the previous two became. But the surprise of the night was Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the election result, in spite of his having done so in a previous debate. It’s true he had rowed back from that position since, but his campaign team – including his running mate Mike Pence and even his daughter Ivanka – had been careful in recent days to distance themselves from any suggestion that the result of the election might be challenged or undermined.

What was the key moment?

Undoubtedly Trump’s gaffe in failing to say he would accept the outcome of the election. It enabled Clinton to reel off a litany of occasions on which Trump has claimed the system is rigged against him, including a time when his TV programme The Apprentice failed to win an Emmy award. Clinton scored some other notable hits too, including when she said Trump underpaid migrant workers and threatened them with deportation if they complained. His lack of a denial was telling.

Who won, and why?

Clinton didn’t need to win this debate, she had only to make sure she didn’t lose it badly enough to allow Trump a way back into this campaign. But she did win it, handsomely. She came across as passionate and sincere on a range of issues, from abortion rights to gun control to immigration, while Trump, although less intemperate than in previous debates, still came across at times as his customary, petulant self. The Donald lost this one, as he might put it himself, bigly.

David McKechnie, deputy foreign editor

How did this debate compare to the previous two?

Less entertaining than the first day, less grubby than the second, mostly due to Trump’s relative discipline. Mercifully, no great appetite to dwell on the sleazier material of recent weeks (Trump even refused, or forgot, to follow-up on the subject of Bill Clinton), so this was a return to the policy-focused material of debate one. But overall it felt like old ground – two checklists of attack subjects customarily run through. As in the first two debates, Trump’s lack of intellectual stamina brought about an unravelling. Tough to watch him without Alec Baldwin’s impression looming: “Wrong”.

Were there any surprises?

We thought we were beyond surprises, but still, Trump’s teasing refusal to say he would accept the election result (“I will tell you at the time… I will keep you in suspense”) had shock value. Obviously a question he will have prepped – but still felt like a spontaneous answer. The most sure sign he knows he’s going to lose, and sign of a dirty fight to come.

What was the key moment?

Other than the above, Trump calling his opponent “such a nasty woman”, and his idiosyncratic desciption of immigrants crossing the border as “bad hombres” had strong re-enforcement value (as if it were needed) on his attitude to women and minorities. No extra votes for him here.

Who won, and why?

Impossible to ever imagine Clinton losing to Trump in this format. She was steady, disciplined and prepped (nice repeated line about him “presenting Celebrity Apprentice” while she was doing serious work) – and she won. For stretches Trump had his best debate, focusing on core conservative topics and staying in his cage. But his refusal to say he will accept the result will provoke outrage. Trump supporters will be preparing their pitchforks.

Kathleen Harris, video journalist

How did this debate compare to the previous two?

While the first two debates were heavily dominated by arguments over character and temperament, round three was more substantive, with robust discussions on issues like immigration and the Supreme Court.

For the first half hour, we saw a softer spoken, more composed and restrained Donald Trump. But when Hillary Clinton turned a question about Wikileaks and her “open borders” comments into an attack on Trump’s relationship with Russia, calling him Vladimir Putin’s “puppet”, the louder, gesticulating, interruptive Trump reemerged.

Were there any surprises?

It’s surprising that three debates have concluded without a moderator question on climate change. The only question related to the issue came during the second debate from undecided voter (and subsequent Internet sensation) Ken Bone, who asked about coal mining policy.

Another surprise was a contribution from Trump to the immigration discussion: “We have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out.”

What was the key moment?

When moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he will accept the outcome of the election and concede to the winner if he loses, he refused to answer, saying “I will tell you at the time ... I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

Who won, and why?

It was a closer call this time, but Hillary Clinton.

Coming into this debate, Clinton was leading in national polls and in key battleground states. The gap between the candidates recently widened following sexual assault allegations against Trump and his response to them. Tonight he called those allegations “fiction” and the women “liars” looking for fame. He’ll have a hard time winning over undecided voters and winning back any supporters he’s lost in recent days with those kinds of comments.

Plus, his refusal to answer Wallace’s question on accepting the election results will not go down well with American voters, who look at the peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another as a cornerstone of American democracy.

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