Commentary: Who won the second presidential debate?

Who won Sunday’s debate? Well, Donald Trump did. Sort of. Let’s discuss.

First, let’s remember how the big question for Trump was whether he could stop his own party from abandoning him. And Trump, wiggling about the stage like a giant off-blond salamander, likely pulled that off. He kept Hillary Clinton on the defensive, didn’t have a meltdown, and even had a couple decent zingers. Being the candidate that he is, he gets points for not imploding. 

Second, both candidates really are lousy debaters. Clinton has the practice and the experience and the knowledge, but she gets knocked off her game pretty easily, and she can’t help but come across as insincere.

And Trump? Well, he at least appears to have cracked open a briefing book before going on stage tonight, but we shouldn’t be impressed that a major party candidate can sometimes muster a coherent answer. I really can’t think of a lower bar for any candidate, in fact, much less one running for president. 

But what Trump can do is offer an overarching critique of America and its institutions. His message, translated from Trump-ese: We are governed by a corrupt and incompetent elite, disconnected from regular citizens, and Clinton will do what they want because she is one of them. 

Say what you will about that critique, or how he delivers it, but it’s easy to understand and might have a nugget of truth to it. Trump wisely stuck to that message all night and in every answer. When he didn’t know what to say, he fell back on it. It gave him an overall coherence he would have otherwise lacked. 

We saw it when, early on, he accused the moderators of trying to assist Clinton. “Three against one,” he muttered somewhat nonsensically, after accusing ABC News’ Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper of not asking Clinton about her emails just moments after they had asked about her emails.

But moderator Martha Radditz, who was otherwise on point, helped Trump when she elected to argue with him about foreign policy. It wasn’t her job to tell him that sometimes generals broadcast their military objectives. The journalists I saw on Twitter loved it, but her move from neutral arbiter to military explainer helped Trump. The easiest way to keep the GOP more-or-less behind him is for media folk to overstep like that. 

Not that Trump didn’t have his fumbles. His answers, though better than usual, were mostly just old GOP talking points that he still managed to garble. He keeps talking about mischevious Clinton aide Sid Blumenthal like he’s some sort of household name. That bit about getting a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton after the election was nutty. And the “grab  p---y” video will continue to damage him. What locker rooms is he hanging out in, exactly? 

But Clinton squandered what was a golden opportunity to put Trump away for good. He was so vulnerable going into this thing it’s a little perplexing that she didn’t, or at least it would be if we don’t remember the essential hollowness of Clinton’s message.

Trump obviously goes too far in describing America’s problems, especially when he talks about African-Americans “living in hell” and all that. But Clinton keeps defending the status quo in a way that doesn’t ring true, either.

A month away from the election, she still seems to have no big vision for America. She has plenty of policy ideas, sure, tweaks here and there to what we’re doing now, but she is insistent that the country is moving generally in the right direction. Also, she loves kids. That’s not a message, and neither is “Stronger Together.”

That doesn’t mean she isn’t going to win the election, though. Because regardless of what happened tonight, she still probably will. Trump’s performance on Sunday may have been enough to stem the bleeding a bit, but his is still a calamity of a campaign.

Clinton didn’t need to win this debate. Trump did. And while he exceeded expectations a bit and was able to stay more-or-less on message, it wasn’t a tremendous victory by any means, and he’s such a wounded candidate he’ll likely continue limping to Election Day. At this moment, he needs to find a way to completely upend the race, and his debate performance on Sunday didn’t do that. 

Trump won, narrowly. But I suspect it won’t matter all that much.  

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.