04 Oct 2016
PR Lessons from Presidential debates

Why Hillary Didn’t Trump Donald In The Debates (And What PR Can Learn From This)

He’s sexist… He’s racist… He doesn’t know what he’s doing… He sniffed too much.

These are typical of the comments levelled at Donald Trump after last week’s first Presidential Debate – which according to consensus, he lost. It also informed much of Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump in a Saturday Night Live sketch from the weekend that went viral almost the minute it aired.


However, not a single one of these comments will bother Donald Trump or derail his campaign. Well, except maybe the sniffles… that was odd. Consequently, declaring it a victory is not taking the long-term impact on voters into account.

In communications, this is a mistake we make all the time. We see an opinion piece placement as a win because it’s a score that registers on the coverage count metric. However, we don’t measure whether it will actually affect our target audience and how. It’s much more meaningful to measure whether it has the impact we want on them.

It’s Politics, But Not As We Know It

This issue has been the fundamental problem the media has had with scoring this election. They treat it like a traditional election, as if this is George W Bush vs Al Gore. These aren’t two politically established candidates jumping through their hoops, taking the expected swipes at each other. This is an established candidate from a political dynasty versus a completely out of nowhere long shot, who’s done everything he can do to shrug off the traditional, established view of a politician. You can’t judge his performance the same way you would any past candidate.

There’s one jibe from Hillary we’ve seen time and time again since the debate: “You criticise me for preparing for this debate, and yes, I did. Do you know what else I prepared for? I also prepared to be president.” This was seen as a massive jab at Trump and Clinton’s crowning moment of the debate. However, it also plays into Trump’s hands because this is his number one point: he isn’t in the political elite, and he’s proud of that.


In any other election, that jab at Trump would’ve been a knockout blow and the media would’ve been correct in saying she won. But consider what impact this has on her target audience? What does a statement like that mean to the disillusioned voters she needs to win over to win this election?

Although clever, the comment still had that cringeworthy “debate joke” vibe. It felt as if she’d rehearsed it several times and had been waiting to say it, knowing it would be her zinger. Unfortunately, it just reinforced how much of a standard, career politician she is to anyone who doesn’t want to vote for the establishment.

Fighting Apathy

The issue Hillary has is that she isn’t liked. She is, to her chagrin, positioned as the lesser of two evils. During the campaign, Trump has said some vile things , which have been widely reported, and they only increase his popularity. Hillary needs to ensure those that hate him, don’t also hate her so much that they won’t bother voting. That is her key objective in this campaign, and positioning herself as more presidential is not the way to do that.

“It couldn’t have gone any better” was Donald’s reply when asked how he thought the debate went immediately afterwards. For him, that’s most likely true. He didn’t say anything at the debate he hadn’t said hundreds of times before. His support is passionate and they seem to like his extemporaneous way of talking. So for him, any televised opportunity to contrast that with her is ideal.

Every time we put Trump in a traditional political situation such as the debates he stands out as being the one thing people want him to be, not a politician. Clinton on the other hand, could not look more like the person groomed to be President. If she’s to win over those undecided voters, she needs to move away from that perception. For me, that is why the media hasn’t judged this debate correctly and why Hillary can’t beat Donald in a live encounter.

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  • Ben

    Great insights Mike, I too felt that calling a winner based on the established rules of debating missed the real result. Both candidates spoke to their audiences, none really landed comments that shifted the middle or might have reached any undecided or simply disinterested by the campaign so far.

    In the fulllness of time, and his billion dollar loss tax filing/leak, the one line that might hurt is the “we have bad schools, bad roads, bad hospitals…” that allowed Hilary to land “because people like you haven’t paid any taxes for them”

    Underlying inequality and the anger it builds has been well manipulated by both Bernie and Trump in this election cycle, and Trump may have shown the biggest crack in his foundation yet with these comments. Exciting and confusing times ahead for sure.

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