By Hastings Wyman –
The “Access Hollywood” video tape showing Donald Trump – eleven years ago – using shockingly demeaning language describing his behavior with women, for a moment at least, seemed to derail his campaign. Republican officials and officeholders across the country, including a number in the Deep Red South, withdrew their support from him, with some even urging him to leave the race and let Mike Pence be the nominee.
Did Sunday night’s debate reverse that trend, or put another way, did Trump’s performance, and Hillary Clinton’s, put The Donald back in contention as a viable presidential candidate?
Yes, to the extent that Trump’s performance was strong enough to rally his base around his candidacy. Even before the debate, but after the “Access Hollywood” revelation, a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken Saturday found that only 12% of Republicans thought Trump should leave the race. In addition, 74% though party officials should continue to back him. The poll still showed Clinton in the lead, with 42% to 38% for Trump, 8% for Gary Johnson and 3% for Jill Stein.
Moreover, Trump’s performance appeared to reinforce his appeal to the base that he’s courted from the beginning of his campaign. For example, when he answered the Muslim woman’s question about hostility to her co-religionists, Trump used his answer not to expand his base, by offering a conciliatory response. Instead, he doubled down on his previous call for strong measures to control the entry of Muslim would-be terrorists into this country. He did virtually the same thing when Anderson Cooper asked him if he still believed Muslims should be banned from entering this country, morphing his stand a bit to urge that they be “strongly vetted,” a view he took in June. So it was not “a missed opportunity,” as the CNN postmortem-ers contended, but a strategic answer to appeal to his support among Republicans, thus undercutting the nascent effort to remove him as the GOP’s nominee.
His performance was not strong enough, however, to put him back running about even with, or slightly ahead of, Clinton, as he was a few weeks ago. He missed several opportunities to provide specifics for his policies. In the energy discussion, for example, he could have – but didn’t – mention his support for the Keystone Pipeline, which Clinton has failed to take a position on. Ditto with his stance for improving the conditions in the inner-cities.
The debate aside, events could still put his role as the Republican standard-bearer back in jeopardy. The first is the appearance of more damaging videos. He is clearly an alpha-male who doesn’t mind boasting about his pro-active role vis-à-vis women, so it would not be a huge surprise if more “October surprises” of the same caliber as the “Access Hollywood” or Howard Stern interview showed up in the next week or two.
The other event that could hurt him is that under Anderson Cooper’s questioning, he stated that the damaging tape involved “only words,” indicating that he had not actually forced himself on women. Again, if in the next week or so, one or more women come forth with first-person accounts of him actually “grabbing” them inappropriately, it will once again cause a lot of negative publicity that he can ill afford.
Hillary Clinton’s performance was not up to the standard she set in the first debate, although she demonstrated her command of policy matters and avoided getting into the quagmire of her husband’s behavior in the White House. She looked healthy, but less energetic than in the first debate. Still, probably the only thing that could derail her candidacy would be another collapse in public, or on video tape.
In sum, for the time being, Donald Trump is no longer going to be under serious pressure to resign his candidacy. But events could conspire to re-exert that pressure. Also for the time being, Hillary Clinton is still the odds-on-favorite on November 8.