Nothing about this presidential contest has been like any other in history. So, we should all be hesitant in drawing too many hard conclusions about what the impact of tonight's debate will be on the electorate. But, we did learn a few things last night and over the course of the last week that will be instructive in the final weeks of this historic contest.
1.Both candidates did what they needed to do in debate #1.
Donald Trump made no gaffes and did not make any policy stumbles. He handled policy questions with adequate answers and, at times, had humorous lines directed at Hillary Clinton. He was tough on Secretary Clinton, but not overly so. In turn, Hillary Clinton was in command of the issues and didn't allow Trump to get under her skin. So, I wouldn't expect the overall contours of the race to change based on tonight's sparring match.
2. But, if the race is status quo after the first debate, Donald Trump arguably won.
Donald Trump had significant momentum before tonight's debate. Over this past week we've seen a tightening of the race, and Hillary Clinton did nothing to change the dynamic. Already this week, polling in Colorado and Pennsylvania showed the race tied and the contest in Wisconsin tightening. Republicans haven't won the later two states since 1988 and 1984, respectively. To be fair, it's highly unlikely Donald Trump will win Wisconsin, but the overall trend is irrefutable: Trump has been gaining ground on Hillary Clinton.
3.There is a path for Donald Trump to win the electoral college.
If you consider that there are 40 states that have gone either Republican or Democratic in every race during at least the last 4 presidential contests (4 of 4 states), then there is relatively little room for error by either of the candidates in their quest to win 270 electoral votes. And, while Mrs. Clinton has more room for error given that Democrats have more 4 of 4 states than Republicans, and thus more locked electoral votes, there's an easy way to consider Donald Trump's path to victory.
To win, he needs to win the states that Mitt Romney won in 2012, plus Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (or in lieu of Pennsylvania, some combination of Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and Virginia). And, right now the race is tied in all of those states except Iowa, where Trump is ahead, and Virginia, where Secretary Clinton is winning.
For a long time, I was in the category of Donald Trump can't win. I still think the race is an uphill climb for him, but after the events of the last two weeks, including last night's rather uneventful debate, it's possible Trump could win.
4.The Third party candidates are of little consequence in this election.
If there was ever a time when a credible third party candidate could be successful in American politics, 2016 is the year. But, Gary Johnson has been uninspiring and his failure to make last night's debate suggests it's unlikely he'll garner the momentum necessary to make the remaining debates. Without some big introduction to the electorate, he'll never garner the exposure to take off.
And, those voters who've been paying attention seem to have decided he's not the answer to their frustration with the two major party candidates. Stuck at sub ten percent, Johnson is likely stay there and there's even some evidence he's lost a little ground (to Trump's benefit) in the last couple weeks.
The arc of a presidential campaign is often set long before key general election events like last night's debate. For instance, the best day of the campaign for Hillary Clinton was in 2015 when Vice President Joe Biden announced he wasn't going to challenge her for the Democratic nomination. If he's unsuccessful, Donald Trump's fate was likely sealed when consumer confidence began to steadily rise, many months ago. His gaffes haven't helped, but they won't cost him the election.
The economy may be just good enough to get Secretary Clinton over the finish line. If Trump wins, it will be because at some point over the past four years, the collective country reached it's breaking point with Washington's current approach to governing; more of the same will be unacceptable for too many voters. That's not to say conventions and debates don't matter, but nothing happened last night to change the arc of this campaign.