The third and final presidential debate was the angriest, beginning with the opening, as the two candidates walked on.
The walk on
Secretary Clinton walked on to the debate stage for her final debate with Mr. Trump with her usual confidence. Mr. Trump also took the stage with greater confidence than in his previous two debates, however, stopping half way to his podium to acknowledge the crowd – a good move in body language terms because it puts you in control of the tempo of your opening. Neither candidate acknowledged the other, and they didn’t shake hands. This debate begins with an angry vibe.
The Supreme Court
Early on, in discussing the Supreme Court, Clinton is confident and strong, with open and positive body language. Trump is also confident and strong, but he uses the four negative facial gestures – scowling, squinting, lowering the eyebrows, and shaking his head “no.” These gestures won’t help him connect with the audience.
Overall, early in the debate, we’re seeing a restrained, quiet Trump. This marks a huge change from his twitchy, angry, earlier debates.
Clinton’s voice is strong and authoritative in these early answers; Trump’s voice is not as strong. He uses the questioning tone more than Clinton, and so appears less strong, less in control.
Once again, as in the other debates, about twenty to twenty-five minutes in, Trump starts to get angry and lose control of the performance, interrupting more, becoming more random in his answers, and interjecting one-word rebuttals like “wrong” into Clinton’s answers.
Economy and Fitness to Be President
A fascinating switch occurs about fifty minutes into the debate. Clinton has started to show genuine anger, and Trump has become more restrained – until the issue of the women accusers comes up, and Trump reverts to his usual angry, scattered answer mode as in previous debates.
An hour in, and Clinton shows real anger, shaking her head, pursing her lips, and allowing real feeling to show. This is a remarkable moment for her debate history.
Foreign Hot Spots
As the discussion moves to foreign affairs, the two candidates look as they have done throughout the debates. Clinton is maintaining control, and Trump is reverting to his original form, ranting, swearing, and sweating. He has begun, once again, to use the “admonishing forefinger” to point toward Clinton in a negative way.
This pattern continues for both candidates through discussions of the national debt, entitlements, and the closing arguments about why each candidate feels they should be elected president.
Clinton and Trump don’t shake hands at the end of the debate; rather they move to the moderator and shake his hand. It’s a missed opportunity to heal the anger that was so clearly expressed by both candidates throughout the debate and the campaign.
In spite of the reversal of roles, in some ways, that the two candidates played out in this final debate, my guess is that it will change very few minds. Neither candidate make a strong body language error that was new or shocking, and both candidates ended up true to form, consistent with their previous debate performances, and with their well-established personas. Secretary Clinton showed more genuine anger, and Mr. Trump more restraint, but overall this debate was more about confirming impressions than changing them.
A presidential candidate must convince us of both his or her credibility and trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is established with consistency of gesture, emotion, and word. In different ways, Mr. Trump’s erratic performances and Mrs. Clinton’s guardedness create trust issues for various members of the voting population. Trump was less erratic, especially at first, but then reverted to type. Clinton was more openly angry at roughly two-thirds of the way through the debate, but then reverted back to her more normal reserved state. Neither candidate changed those impressions much based on this final debate. Credibility is established by command of fact and nuance, and the confidence with which you state your opinions. In this area, Clinton’s command of the facts and her voice are both stronger than Mr. Trump’s, and she therefore edges him out in this important measure of fitness for the presidency.