Trump’s Debate Performance and the Evolution of Presidential Communication

President Trump

by Tim Young
To the casual political observer, last night’s debate was exactly as they would have expected. Clinton and Trump traded barbs over absolutely everything anyone without any inside knowledge could have predicted.

In the end, if you favored Hillary Clinton before the debate, you said she won; and if you favored Donald Trump, you said that he won. People inside the beltway for the most part dislike Donald Trump and therefore said that Hillary came off sounding like a leader… a “real President,” and that might be the case any other year in the past, but not now.

What we witnessed last night was an evolution in Presidential politics and campaign communication that was on par with the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy v. Richard Nixon in 1960. In that debate as you may recall, those who watched saw a shaky, sweaty, sick Nixon and declared him the loser. Those who listened heard a confident leader in Nixon and declared him the winner. The similar, albeit a different medium altogether, is what just happened between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

To the unobservant decided insider (who I was surrounded by during the debate), Trump looked unpolished and rude, interrupting Hillary after every point she made. He was brash, harsh and seemed less prepared than she was, but he wasn’t in the debate for the DC insider or the decided voter. Last night, Trump took on the role of the angry American observer. Someone who, when watching Hillary Clinton at home on TV angrily yells “you liar!” or “what about your emails?” In fact, for the first time in Presidential debate history, we witnessed a candidate speak and embody the frustration of the home viewer… and intentionally, quite brilliantly so.

Hillary led the debate with her robotic, overly planned scripted policy statements, and Trump destroyed them, not with the typical back and forth with his version of overly planned scripted policy statements, but how a normal member of the electorate would do, with quick, poignant “no’s” and statements shooting down what she was saying. That strategy has been previously unheard of in presidential debates and it can be simply summed up as ‘how normal people talk.’

It’s such a simple concept that you’re probably shocked it’s never been seen before, but here it is. Nixon sweat on camera and when you watched him sweat, you thought he lost… here if you thought that this was a traditional election, then the traditional “talk presidential” strategy was a success. But if you are a normal human being looking to vote for someone who thinks and talks like you, you saw it on stage embodied in the Republican nominee.

There’s no going back from here. What we saw tonight and what we have seen in politics this cycle from Donald Trump is a new communications strategy, one where the successful candidate is quick witted, sharp and angry just like the electorate they are appealing to.

For the hundreds of millions of dollars going into the Clinton campaign, you would think they would have spent the time watching the GOP debates. Trump did the exact same thing there, but there were more characters to distract from just how smart it was. Now, one-on-one, we see the establishment rhetoric versus the home viewer. In 1960, TV forever changed the communication style of debates, last night something similar happened, and Presidential debates will never be the same again.

PS – We know how this story ends, because there are more people watching at home with their families than there are drinking fancy cocktails at multi-million dollar consulting firms inside the beltway.