The cable news consensus Sunday night seemed to be that Donald Trump won the debate. He was strong, he knew his stuff. He didn’t physically light himself on fire or reach over and scratch Hillary Clinton’s face off. He was so much better than expected! Clinton, on the other hand, was defensive. She wasn’t animated. She was too wonkish and distant from the crowd.
But every debate has multiple audiences, and the audience Trump really needed to reach Sunday night were the voters who are not yet supporting him, especially college-educated female voters who voted by a 6-point margin for Mitt Romney in 2012, but are now supporting Clinton over Trump by 25 points.
With those women in mind, let’s review Trump’s performance by ranking the five moments likely to be the most off-putting to female voters, in the order of their blatant offensiveness.
1. “It’s locker room talk.”
When Trump was asked about the leaked video that showed him joking with NBC’s Billy Bush about groping women, Trump dismissed the banter as boys-will-be-boys shenanigans. “Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it,” he said. “But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things.” Joking about assaulting women isn’t one of those things, unless “those things” are the musings of unreformed cavemen and criminals. To diminish the words he used tells women he’s not really sorry he said them, and doesn’t even know why he should be. And as an update for Trump, there are 3.5 million female athletes in American high schools and colleges who all use locker rooms, but don’t use that language. Because it’s not locker room talk.
2. “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”
This was Trump’s umbrella defense for himself when Clinton promised to work to represent all Americans, especially the ones she said Trump has singled out for special ridicule like African- Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and women. Focus groups with women have tipped the Clinton campaign off to the fact that Trump’s language is so abhorrent to some female voters that they have developed a series of ads attacking Donald Trump using only Trump’s own words to do it. There is no such thing as “just words” for mothers, sisters, and daughters who know how powerful words can be.
3. The pre-debate assault assault.
Another concern among female voters has been Trump’s temperament, specifically his unpredictability. So does anything say, “I’m predictable,” less than Trump convening a last-minute press conference, streamed live on Facebook, to showcase the stories of three women, victims themselves, who have accused Bill Clinton of assaulting them decades ago. Trump essentially blamed Hillary Clinton for her husband’s past cheating and scandals and then shamed her by putting all three women in the front row of the presidential debate. For many female viewers especially, the entire event was uncomfortable at best.
4. “Believe me, she has tremendous hate in her heart.”
There was an audible gasp in the town hall-style audience when Trump segued from talking about the murder rate in inner cities to blaming Clinton for dividing the nation and having “hate in her heart.” A majority of women, in polls, say they do not find Clinton honest and trustworthy, but nowhere do they say she is hateful at her core.
5. Donald Trump, Night Stalker.
Women consistently object to what they see as Trump’s persona as a bully, a larger-than-life personality who berates and intimidates people into doing what he wants them to do. Could anything embody that sentiment more than Trump’s space-invading hover throughout the debate? At 6’2”, Trump already towers over Clinton. But to see him stand uncomfortably close to her and track her movements throughout the 90 minutes made Rick Lazio’s outreach to Clinton during their 2000 Senate debate look like a gentleman asking for a waltz.
Despite his many offenses, or maybe because of them, Trump did seem to get the better of Clinton on tactics alone. It’s possible that having Juanita Broaddrick sitting just feet away from her during the debate was as distracting to Clinton as it was to everybody else watching along.
But when it comes to winning over undecided voters — or even winning back female Republicans who have defected to the Democrats — Trump did himself few favors Sunday night.