Who Won the Second Clinton-Trump Debate? How Conservatives Saw It

Hillary Clinton speaks as Donald Trump looks on at their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 9. Michael Barone writes: My sense is that Trump’s performance was good enough to stall what has been this weekend a growing cascade of demands that he withdraw from the race. It doesn’t seem likely that he eliminated what seemed to be the growing polling gap between him and Clinton. But he may have reversed the trend. Jim Young/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Heading into Sunday evening's debate, moderated by ABC's Martha Raddatz and CNN's Anderson Cooper, it was a week of revelations.

As presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gathered for their town hall debate, the latest national polls, as of noon on Sunday, had Trump up by 3 percent (Los Angeles Times/USC) and Clinton up by 4 percent and 6 percent (Fox News and Quinnipiac).

As a town hall debate, Trump and Clinton were asked both moderator and audience questions, the audience being uncommitted voters picked by Gallup for the occasion.

Given the dramatic news cycle heading into Sunday evening, many were wondering whether this debate would hit or surpass the 88 million viewers who watched the first debate. Recent history suggests no, but it is anyone's guess.

The Political Corner at American Enterprise Institute convened to discuss the town hall. Here are their thoughts.

Michael Barone

Fireworks! Going into the debate, the question seemed to be whether Trump would survive as the Republican presidential candidate. My sense is that he substantially improved his chance of doing so.

He managed to field tough questions about the 2005 tapes by pivoting, somewhat frantically, to substantive issues. He managed to attack Clinton for her response to the women accusing Bill Clinton of rape or other sexual involvement—although he went over the top, in my judgment, by interjecting that he would put her in jail.

Trump reportedly didn't put in much time in debate prep, but he had many more facts and figures at his command, though with his sloppy speech patterns, he was vulnerable occasionally to correction by fact checkers.

He was careful to sound Republican themes much more frequently than he did in the first debate. He went after Obamacare harshly, though was only vague on what he would replace it with. He hit Clinton for favoring entry of additional refugees from Syria without, he said, proper ("extreme") vetting.

As in the first debate, he hit her on taxes. He criticized her and President Barack Obama on Syria and on their support of withdrawal from Iraq which, he said, enabled ISIS to grow and spread. He hit her for calling half his supporters "deplorables" and "irredeemable."

He apparently scored very strongly in Frank Luntz's focus group in his attacks, complete with sarcastic interjections, on Clinton's private email server. Her assurance that there's no evidence that classified material from them has been hacked—an assurance that flies in the face of the assessments of FBI Director James Comey and other experts that they almost surely have been, that the server was less secure than Gmail—fell flat.

He also issued shout-outs to Bernie Sanders voters. He was specific in highlighting her comments in the recently released transcripts of her speeches to bank executives. He even brought in defenestrated Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

He repeated his claim, disputed by the moderators, to have opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, although I wonder why he didn't simply make the statement, impervious to hostile fact-checking, that he opposed the Iraq War before she did.

Trump deliberately separated himself from his vice presidential candidate Mike Pence. A response to the comments by some Republicans that he should withdraw in Pence's favor?

My sense is that Trump's performance was good enough to stall what has been this weekend a growing cascade of demands that he withdraw from the race. It doesn't seem likely that he eliminated what seemed to be the growing polling gap between him and Clinton. But he may have reversed the trend.

Karlyn Bowman

After the first debate, the national polls started to move in Clinton's direction. So did the handful of new state polls, giving her small but not inconsequential leads.

Before last night's town hall debate, she led in every swing state. The developments since Friday may move the needle once again, but we won't know for a while.

Ten minutes into the debate, I wanted to turn the set off, and I expect many viewers did so. It began as a circus. After that, both seemed to keep their cool for the most part, though their interruptions were annoying.

Has he stopped the bleeding? Once again, it is too early to know, but this debate didn't appear to change the pre-debate political landscape. They ended on a high note with positive remarks about each other, which was most welcome.

Timothy Carney

Trump, once again, showed why preparation matters. That is, he didn't prepare much and as a result he missed many opportunities to weaken his opponent and win over his party's wavering base.

On Obamacare, Trump made the strong point that the bill was passed based on lies. He couldn't coherently articulate the specific lies and how they were lies. He instead rambled about Jonathan Gruber and never even quoted Obama's famous "If you like your plan…" promise.

On the emails, Trump failed to draw attention from the side issue of classified emails back to the main issue: Setting up her own email server enabled Clinton to evade the public records laws—and this makes it seem like she was hiding something.

On the Supreme Court, Clinton never mentioned the Constitution. Trump didn't point that out, and he failed to mention the issues that motivate his party's Supreme Court voters: abortion, religious liberty and property rights.

His inability to deliver these blows, as much as his unpresidential traits, is a huge boon to Clinton.

Norman Ornstein

The main questions about this debate were about Trump. Did he stop the bleeding, right the ship? And if so, did he do anything that would expand his support among key voting groups or in key states?

On the first set of questions, I think the answer is that he did enough to limit the damage in terms of a continuing hemorrhage of lawmakers calling for his resignation from the ticket (although there may well be more revelations). But barely.

He remains a real embarrassment for the party, and an even bigger embarrassment for Pence, who was thrown under the bus by his running mate.

If the tape [in which Trump boasted about assaulting women] occupied only a fraction of a 90-plus minute debate, it will soon be back in the news and discussion. And the fact that he continues to show no remorse and will continue to pursue a scorched-earth strategy has to leave Republican House and Senate candidates very nervous.

And, like the first debate, he made fact checkers heads explode again.

On the second question, I think the answer is definitely no. I cannot imagine any educated white woman not previously supporting Trump to watch him stalk Clinton on the stage, insult and interrupt her, saying, "Now he is my guy!" Nor any Muslim, Hispanic-American, African-American or other minority who was not previously in his camp.

While he may have shored up support in West Virginia, Kentucky, North Dakota and, say, Montana, I don't think he did much to help in New Hampshire, Nevada, Colorado, Florida or Pennsylvania.

As for Clinton, I thought her demeanor was strong, but (in part because of the format—the disjointed questions and responses) she did not do as well as she did in the first debate.

But for her, the question is whether she did anything to lose support from the key groups she needs. And my answer to that is no.

Ramesh Ponnuru

By normal standards, Trump did not perform well in the debate. He couldn't explain more than one thing about his health plan or two things about his tax plan; he promised to sic investigators on his opponent.

But nothing about this debate was normal. Everything else that happened this weekend—the publicizing of a videotape where he boasts about grabbing women; his top supporters' making excuses for it; his your-husband-did-worse press conference; the defection of many Republicans from his team; his Twitter counterattack on them—a complete meltdown seemed to be in the offing.

It wasn't. And so, absent new revelations, the calls for Trump to quit the race will probably subside.

He has "stopped the bleeding." But his campaign was in bad shape before the videotape came out.

Michael Barone, a resident fellow at AEI and co-author of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

Karlyn Bowman is senior fellow and research coordinator at AEI. Alex Brill is a research fellow at AEI.

Timothy Carney is visiting fellow, Culture of Competition Project, at AEI.

Norman Ornstein served as co-director of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at AEI, a senior editor for National Review and a columnist for Bloomberg View.