I know it may not seem like it, but Trump’s decision to try to diminish the significance of his bad behavior in the second debate is more than a function of his alleged narcissism or sociopathy. Rather, it is further evidence of how Trump is trying to rewrite the campaign playbook. Instead of trying to appeal to undecided and centrist voters in traditional ways, Trump has long employed a series of tactics intended to convince median voters that they are really extremists and/or to remind them of the fact that they do not like Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Scholars of campaigns and elections are familiar with median voter theory, or the idea that candidates try to pitch their appeals to the voter who is ideologically centrist and most likely to cast the deciding vote for the office at hand. This theory informs popular discussions of pivoting—or in the case of Mitt Romney in 2012, the Etch-a-Sketch moment. While Romney learned that perhaps he should not have been so transparent about his strategy, we have come to expect nominees to soften their primary season positions to try to appeal to the widest possible electorate.
Donald Trump’s positions during the primary season were so incendiary, so extreme, though, that it would be incredibly difficult for him to credibly move to the center after he won his party’s nomination. As such, Trump has taken a different approach to try to appeal to the center. Throughout the fall campaign, he has alternated between taking small traditional pivots, using fear to tap into what he hopes are the extremist positions of median voters, and reminding median voters of their anti-Clinton affect.
In the past month, we have seen all three appeals on display in the campaign. As he mentioned last night during the questions on Syrian refugees, he pivoted ever so slightly on his proposed ban on Muslims. The pivot does not register to voters on either end of the spectrum, but voters in the center may receive it differently and take it as evidence of him being more presidential, while still addressing their fears of terrorism.
And remember that bizarre press conference last month where he claimed to end the birther controversy by blaming Hillary Clinton for the whole thing? (He repeated that charge last night.) There may have been some logic there, too. Anticipating the blowback he would receive for propounding a racist conspiracy theory, Trump was trying to go on the offensive and argue that Clinton 1) wanted to focus on maligning Trump instead of focusing on the issues (including invoking the specter of racism, to which very few people ever want to admit); and 2) he wanted to undermine Clinton’s moral authority to judge him by implicating her in the controversy.
Trump’s handling of the Access Hollywood tapes is further evidence of his attempt to try to use the Clintons to inoculate himself from the consequences of his own unacceptable behavior. In light of the revelation of those tapes, a normal candidate would have offered complete, unadulterated contrition. Not Donald Trump. By bringing up Bill Clinton’s pecadilloes and inviting his accusers to the debate, Trump is trying to say that both campaigns are equally implicated in degrading women. And if both candidates have ties to misogyny, then voters should focus on the substantive differences between the candidates, not Hillary Clinton’s argument that she has the better temperament to be president.
Let me be clear: I don’t think this is going to work. Trump has made too many inflammatory statements for people to ignore his bad behavior. Moreover, for all of his faults and the seriousness of the allegations made against Bill Clinton, he is not running for president. Finally, Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush was way too graphic to be forgotten. If Bush can be suspended indefinitely for egging Trump on, then Trump will likely pay some price for the pattern of his behavior.
However, the strategy does help to explain why the initial assessments of the debate concede that Trump had some bright spots. CNN reports that most voters said Clinton won the night; however, fewer people said she won the second debate than the first debate. In addition, Trump exceeded the expectations of 63% of those polled. The combination of actually preparing for the debate (a traditional campaign move) plus questioning Hillary and Bill Clinton’s character seemed to have some traction.
In the end, Trump should be most worried about the ratings—not because of how his ego seems to feed off of such things, but because of what that might signal about whether voters can still be persuaded and if they will turn out. Variety is reporting a 20% dropoff in viewership between this debate and the September 26 debate. Perhaps voters were so appalled by the tapes that they tuned out. Perhaps they have already made their decision about whom to support. Perhaps they are so disgusted that they have decided to not vote. We will need more survey data to understand what we are observing for sure. Suffice to say, though, there is still a bumpy ride ahead.
Andra Gillespie is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University. Her courses and research cover African American Politics, particularly the politics of the post-Civil Rights generation of leadership, and political participation.