Who won the debate?

Updated 11:12 AM EDT, Thu October 20, 2016
(CNN) —  

CNN commentators and guest analysts offer their take on Wednesday night’s final presidential debate. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely theirs.

Julian Zelizer: A stunning moment in the debate

The most troubling part of the debate for many observers came when Donald Trump would not say that he will accept the results of the election.

“I’ll tell you at the time—I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?” he said, words that will provoke great concern among those who feel he is raising dangerous questions about the legitimacy of this election and the results—assuming he does not win.

Still, in many ways the debate was more conventional than anyone expected. Hillary Clinton was at her best when she found the opportunities to be aggressive on domestic policy issues.

During the discussions over the second amendment, women’s rights and immigration, she displayed a level of confidence and knowledge that allowed her to take Donald Trump on with gusto. She also hit him very hard when Chris Wallace turned the discussion to his comments about women and the accusations of sexual harassment that have emerged. Even as he blamed her campaign for spreading the allegations, Clinton remained focused on the women’s stories.

With the exception of his “suspense” remark, Trump did not implode. He was generally able to contain his outbursts—with some exceptions and Alec Baldwin type “wrong”s in the microphone while Wallace’s questions prompted Clinton to stumble about her position on open borders.

Clinton moved the conversation deep into allegations about Putin, taking them away from the differences on immigration that could energize the Obama coalition. Trump was able to get in some points, such as his promise to appoint a conservative Supreme Court judge who could bring back some conservatives who have been deserting the GOP candidate. He was still able to repeat some of his familiar quips like calling the Clinton Foundation “a criminal enterprise.”

But then the election comes down to the reality of the numbers. The data show that Trump and the GOP are in serious trouble. He is not winning in battleground states, he is struggling in some conservative states, and he is certainly not expanding the number of red states. Just looking at the math, it’s hard to see how he wins the Electoral College. If Trump scored any points, this debate alone won’t be enough to transform the basic picture of the electoral battle. And if it was a tie, the benefit goes to Clinton given her increasing lead.

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.”

David Gergen: Trump missed this last chance

David Gergen
David Gergen

Years ago, among the casinos of Atlantic City, Donald Trump raised the curtain on an expanded career in business. Last night, among the casinos of Las Vegas, he seemingly lowered the curtain on his career in politics.

That he has come as far as he has in politics remains one of the most improbable stories of our time. He created an army of followers that will continue to shake the American landscape. Still, one always sensed there would be a moment of personal reckoning. It came last night.

Trump emerged from the GOP primaries with a reputation for putting away his opponents, knowing just where their jugular was and ripping into them. His swagger and refusal to prepare seriously for the presidential debates suggested a confidence that he could do the same to Hillary Clinton.

But in their first debate together, she clobbered him, ending his upward surge. Over the next 23 days leading up to Las Vegas, he not only lost a second time to her but drove his campaign into a ditch. He ran the worst fall campaign of any candidate in memory.

Thus, he came into last night’s debate desperate for victory. For the first 40 minutes, it looked like he might actually pull it off. But just as he did in the other encounters, he began to lose steam and, importantly, lose control of his ego. Wild charges, interruptions, defensiveness all resurfaced – some would say his persecution complex kicked in. She kept her cool and sure enough, CNN’s poll found that viewers thought she won: 52% to 39% A YouGov poll found a 10 point spread in her favor.

More importantly, many in the press, as well as others (I am among them) were horrified that Trump refused to say he would accept the verdict of voters on November 8. No other candidate has ever taken the outrageous position that “if I win, that’s legitimate but if I lose, the system must be rigged.” It is bad enough that Trump puts himself before party; now he is putting self before country.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton came in rested and prepared last night and, over time, took control of the stage. While Trump supporters still think she is a witch, my hunch is that many others are growing more comfortable with the notion that she will likely be our next President.

There are sure to be more surprising twists and turns in this campaign, but one thing now seems certain: after losing three straight debates, Trump has now exhausted his last big chance to reverse the momentum in his favor. Defeat seems near – and it is not because the system is rigged against him.

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen.

S.E. Cupp: Trump did better… but bar was low

S.E. Cupp
S.E. Cupp

To increase an engine’s power, you “take the governor off,” as we NASCAR fans say. Donald Trump has thus far run his campaign without a governor, much to the chagrin of the Republican Party and even his own surrogates and campaign staff. His outbursts in previous debates telegraphed to many he was not interested in being “shackled” by any traditional campaign conventions. As the election has progressed, that’s led to a narrowing of his appeal and his inability to crack a majority in national polls.

To continue the NASCAR theme, this final debate was the Talladega of debates, where Trump was racing with a restrictor plate and the governor back on.

Sure, there were moments where he was loose, barking back retorts to Hillary Clinton like, “wrong” and “not true.” But he was also loaded with ready comebacks, stats and the obvious attacks he often missed in previous debates in favor of tangential, off-topic ad hominem nonsense. Instead of going to the gutter, he repeatedly steered back to issues.

It was a performance that was, yes, riddled with inaccurate statements that fact-checkers will point out. He once again showed an alarming lack of facility with foreign policy, insisting Aleppo, the Syrian city that is under siege by Bashar al-Assad and Russian airstrikes, had fallen, and mixing up Sunni and Shiite loyalties in Mosul. He also insisted he never said he’d allow nation states like Saudi Arabia to nuclear arm, which is a lie. And he once again failed to repudiate the idea that the election has been “rigged,” setting an incredibly dangerous precedent that he might not accept the outcome of this election.

But it’s also a performance that many in Republican leadership may have wanted to see much earlier. The bar was low for Trump, so this only looked controlled in comparison to his previously maniacal performances, and with Clinton gaining insurmountable ground nationally and in battleground states, it’s too little, too late. But this was without question his best debate performance of the election.

S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News

00:45 - Source: CNN
Donald Trump: The master of 'disaster'

Errol Louis: With ‘nasty woman’ comment, Trump shows Clinton got under his skin

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

Hillary Clinton came into the final debate in a stronger political position than Donald Trump – and wisely chose not to play it safe. Instead, she jabbed at Trump continually, and predictably drew out the billionaire’s angry, caustic side.

Trump handled early questions well, sounding familiar notes on why he would nominate conservative judges to the Supreme Court. But Clinton kept needling him, pointing out that Trump projects were built with Chinese steel and undocumented immigrant labor.

And she more or less called Trump a “puppet” of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, leading her irritated opponent with little more to reply than, “No, you’re the puppet.”

Trump was at his best, as usual, on the economy, but was cornered on the issue of how his proposed plan would affect Medicare, Social Security and the national debt (the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, did an excellent job of showing how Clinton and Trump would both leave entitlements at risk and do little to slow growth of the debt).

“Such a nasty woman!” Trump complained toward the end of the debate, a marker of Clinton’s skill at getting under Trump’s skin – much in the way she did in the first debate.

The point was well taken. Clinton has averaged a 6.5-point lead over Trump in polls over the past week. That’s after a 5-point lead following the first debate. With fewer than three weeks to go, Trump is running out of time to catch up, and may have missed his last, best chance in the final debate.

Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

Brett Talley: Trump, a vote for the forgotten people

Brett Talley
PHOTO: Courtesy Brett Talley
Brett Talley

After two debates that could have been held in a mudhole, tonight was mostly about the issues. And boy, did we see some differences between these two candidates.

During this debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump told you exactly what they would do as President. If you support activist justices on the Supreme Court, if you support late-term abortion on demand, if you support open borders and amnesty, if you want a continuation of a foreign policy that has helped plunge the Middle East into war-torn chaos, if you want four more years of the past eight years, Hillary Clinton is your candidate.

If you want something different, if you want justices who adhere to the Constitution, laws that respect unborn life, a reformed immigration system and secure border, a military that puts American interests first, and a government that cares about the people in this country who have been forgotten for too long, then Donald Trump deserves your vote.

These two candidates are horribly flawed. Donald Trump has said some awful things. Hillary Clinton has committed acts that would have resulted in the prosecution of ordinary citizens. But this election isn’t just about the people on the stage; it’s about the future of the country and which direction we will go.

Brett J. Talley is a lawyer, author, one-time writer for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and former speechwriter for Sen. Rob Portman. He is deputy solicitor general at the office of Alabama’s attorney general.

Roxanne Jones: Clinton the only fit candidate on stage

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

We knew from the start when Donald Trump said he wanted to “make America great again,” it wasn’t completely true. He wasn’t talking to everyone — not women, not Muslims, or Mexicans, or the LGBTQ community, certainly not blacks or Latinos, or immigrants, or even poor folks.

Last night, Trump doubled down on his strategy to divide America and try to conquer the White House. He told us that if he loses he’s not sure he’ll accept the results, even for the good of the country. In his closing statement, a perfect opportunity to go out classy, he bashed Hillary Clinton, said—essentially– we should fear one another and that we should get rid of immigrants; he told blacks he was the only person who could save us and called for more law and order. Not one positive word about how he could move our country forward or improve the lives of every American.

Just for a minute in the beginning, Trump looked good. He had finally studied his notes. He showed more discipline than in the past –stayed focused on the questions. But then, he unraveled. He deflected questions about his lewd comments on groping women, told moderator Chris Wallace he wanted to talk about something else. I bet he did.

Trump stayed silent when Clinton told America that Trump and his company have not only used undocumented workers to build his projects but also shipped jobs out of the country at every turn. Trump’s response: change the laws so I won’t be able to do that. Say what? So now, it’s Clinton’s fault that Trump decided to send jobs overseas? Horrible.

Trump entered this race a brash political outsider. He had a chance to do something really powerful: re-create the Republican party, broaden the base to appeal to more Americans. And inspire us to cross party lines to work together and show the world America’s heart. But he blew it in one long winded, hate-filled campaign in which boasting, bashing women and just about everyone else took the place of informed policy discussions and common decency.

Hillary Clinton is not perfect — I’ve yet to see a politician who is — and she faces legitimate issues with trust among voters. But she was the only person on that stage fit to be President of the United States, the only candidate who can move America forward. The win goes to her.

Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events, is a co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” and CEO of the Push Marketing Group.

Tim Stanley: Trump a sad, sore loser

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Hillary Clinton won this most substantive debate, which was excellently moderated by Chris Wallace.

In theory, the focus on issues should’ve given Donald Trump a chance to shine. It did allow him to make some standard conservative points – and rather well. His pro-life position was uncompromising; his stance on gun control a clear contrast to Hillary Clinton. But he was also rambling, repetitive, failed to complete thoughts and – worst of all – allowed himself to get side-tracked by personal vendettas. If he is too thin skinned, however, it is because layers have been torn off by this process. The allegations of sex abuse, of fraud, or reliance on his father’s wealth are easily exploited by Clinton.

The biggest moment of the night was Trump’s refusal to accept his forthcoming defeat, casting doubt on the validity of the election. He referred, I suspect, to Pew’s 2012 research, which found that up to 1 in 8 voter registrations in the United States “are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.” But that doesn’t actually mean those registrations translate into votes, while Pew also said that nearly a quarter who should be able to vote currently cannot – so turnout may actually be depressed. Either way, Trump came off as a sore loser conceding the inevitable. A sad, pre-emptive end to a remarkable, charismatic candidacy.

Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.”

Nayyera Haq: He can’t help himself

Nayyera Haq
PHOTO: nayyerahaq
Nayyera Haq

Candidates don’t change their personalities in the final debate. The goal is to use the third debate as an opportunity to add new voters to the team.

By sticking with the conservative Republican line on SCOTUS, 2nd amendment, abortion, and repealing Obamacare, Trump should have helped shore up his numbers in red states and make down-ballot Republican candidates feel more comfortable. For a broader set of voters, seeing a serious Trump able to have a policy based discussion for 45 minutes was a truly novel experience.

But Trump couldn’t hack it for the full debate. As we saw in the first debate, it is very easy to get under Trump’s skin. All it takes is questioning his business practices or ties to Russia and Trump simply cannot stay on the substantive side of the topic.

Trump derails his own gains by interrupting Hillary and making catty comments, and more tellingly, is not able to return to the more sober, statesmanlike demeanor people hope to see from a presidential candidate.

Instead, he doubles down on the personality traits that turn off voters generally and makes comments that disgust women and minorities in particular. Telling African-Americans he will make their lives better by instituting more law and order is the exact wrong message. And why take the final few minutes of the debate, the part that viewers are most likely to remember, to call the first female presidential candidate a “nasty woman”?

With 20 days left in the election, we all know who Trump is. He can fake being serious about the presidency for only a few minutes before resorting to the snarky comments that made him a reality star. It works for ratings, but it’s a losing strategy for getting votes.

Nayyera Haq is CEO of Avicenna Strategy, a cross-cultural communications firm. Previously a White House senior director and a State Department spokesperson during the Obama administration, she regularly comments on politics and current affairs for CNN. She is a Hillary Clinton supporter.

Raul Reyes: Trump, a wounded bear, flails in debate

Raul Reyes
Raul Reyes

Coming into the debate tonight from Las Vegas, Donald Trump was like a wounded bear, swinging and flailing in a last-chance effort to keep his candidacy alive. His dwindling poll numbers have set him on an increasingly erratic course; since the last debate, he has warned of a “rigged election,” suggested that a Mexican billionaire was behind the New York Times’ unflattering coverage of him, claimed that undocumented immigrants were committing voting fraud on a massive scale, and lashed out at the women who have accused him of unwanted sexual advances. He has even gone so far as to insinuate that Hillary Clinton was on drugs at the last debate.

If all this sounds like the strategy of an increasingly desperate candidate, that’s about right. Trump is going down, and he knows it. What this meant for Hillary Clinton is that for once, she had a low bar to clear in the debate: as long as she could stay cool and articulate her vision for the country, she would likely be judged the winner of Wednesday’s faceoff.

So did she manage to accomplish this goal? Yep. And the person that Clinton can thank for this, in part, is Trump himself.

Trump managed to maintain his composure for about 25 minutes into this debate. Then the gloves came off, in the worst ways. He interrupted Clinton, in a manner reminiscent of Alec Baldwin impersonating him on Saturday Night Live (“Wrong!”).

He threw out gratuitous personal insults, such as when he declared “such a nasty woman” while Clinton was discussing government entitlements. He sounded like a third-grader when he shot back her, “No, you’re the one who is unfit.” His sniffles made their reappearance. His discourse throughout the debate never rose above the most infantile level, such as when he called undocumented immigrants “bad hombres.” In so doing, over the course of an hour and a half Trump demonstrated to millions of Americans why he is unfit for office.

There was some serious discussion of substantive policy from Clinton, particularly on Iraq and Russia. But that was all overshadowed by Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the result of the 2016 election. That’s it. It’s over. With this stunning statement, Trump disqualified himself from the presidency. When he told moderator Chris Wallace that he would “look into it at the time” – speaking about the election results – he showed why we do not need a reality TV star in the White House. We need a statesman – or let’s make that “stateswoman.” Hello, Madame President.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him @RaulAReyes.

01:15 - Source: CNN
CNN/ORC poll: Clinton won all three debates

Buck Sexton: We’re trapped in crass reality show

Buck Sexton
PHOTO: Jeremy Freeman
Buck Sexton

The final presidential debate was as expected: nasty, brutish and not short enough. Trump won, though it was likely too close a call to affect the polls. While the policy substance was probably the strongest of all three candidate face offs, it was overshadowed by the plentiful personal attacks. Nothing new was learned about either candidate. It was a debate that was more instructive as a microcosm of a generally dispiriting election race than as a moment to change the minds of undecided American voters.

Perhaps the melee on stage was inevitable. We have reached the saturation point for mudslinging in this election. A public contest for who should be the next commander-in-chief shouldn’t feel like the most crass, ungallant reality TV show imaginable, yet here we are. No matter what the final outcome on November 8th, both major parties’ top-of-ticket candidates have largely deprived this country of a substantive public debate on policies that matter.

Instead, we have been privy to an all-out partisan media war, with unrepentant Hillary Clinton enablers on one side, and Donald-Trump-at-all-costs defenders on the others (though a vast majority of the chattering class clings to Madam Secretary’s side). This battle of propaganda machines will churn on, unmercifully, until election day, and whichever candidate ends up winning the White House, he or she will have been ethically sullied and politically hobbled along the way. The debate was merely reflective of these unfortunate realities.

Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of “The Buck Sexton Show” on TheBlaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst.

Frida Ghitis: Donald Trump is a frightening man

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

If you’re not frightened for America, you have not been paying attention. That was clear even in this final debate, in which Donald Trump managed to keep his cool for about the first 30 to 45 minutes, appearing to maintain control over his baser instincts. The effort to restrain himself proved too strenuous, and he finally dropped all pretense of discipline. We saw the real Trump, and it was a most unpleasant sight.

Nothing Trump does or says comes as a surprise any more. But we should not lose our ability to be shocked. The Republican candidate for the presidency refused to say he would accept the outcome of the election. America’s foes, the enemies of democracy around the world, must have rubbed their hands in glee.

One of the great achievements of humanity is the democratic tradition of peaceful transfer of power, the knowledge that after a hard-fought campaign the loser concedes. Trump may or may not accept that. Forget November 8th. What is he planning for November 9th?

How scary is Trump? Imagine he wins the election. The dark scenarios are endless. But fast-forward to four years later. Imagine that he wins the election. Imagine he runs for re-election and loses, and then refuses to give up power. Trump has the instincts of a dictator.

Some dictators are charming. Trump is not. He lied so many times it was amazing to watch. He claimed the accusations of women against him have been debunked. They have not. He rejected the judgment of US security agencies about Russian hacking in the US.

And then, near the end, in a most revolting moment, he interrupted Clinton to say, “She’s a nasty woman.”

Trump solidified his standing with his hardcore supporters, promoting what sounds more and more like a seditious movement, a movement to incite rebellion against the lawful government of the United States.

If Trump had maintained discipline, he might have scored some points. Instead, he reminded us what a frightening election this is, what a frightening man he is.

At the same time, he helped showcase the poise of his rival. Hillary Clinton looked, sounded, behaved, like the soon-to-be President of a great country.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis.

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Sally Kohn: One candidate was presidential

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

The third and final debate was a microcosm of this entire election: Hillary Clinton was presidential and Donald Trump was petulant.

Hillary Clinton’s experience and expertise literally made Donald Trump sweat. She talked inspiringly about her vision for growing America’s economy from the middle-out and the bottom-up, as opposed to Trump’s top-down trickled down economics. And Clinton addressed complex foreign policy questions with the nuance and sophistication that they demand and that Trump plainly lacks.

Anyone who claims that Trump won is really just admitting that the bar is so terribly low for him at this point that as long as he only vomited incoherent word salads and not actual salad on the stage, he came out ahead.

And yet Trump, who has managed to lower all of our expectations in this election, went one step lower in refusing to say that he will honor the results of the presidential election if he is not the winner. This is dark, dangerous anti-democratic stuff. The sort of stuff that takes us down a road that history has proven to be ugly.

Then Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman.” Ugly in a different way, but still ugly.

I have got to hope that it is plain to anyone who stops to deeply think about it that Hillary Clinton is a knowledgeable and serious candidate and Donald Trump is throwing a national temper tantrum and is dangerously close to our nuclear codes.

Hillary Clinton was the only candidate on that stage with the skill and strength to be President of the United States of America. She has ideas. He has innuendo. She has solutions. He has the sniffles.

She won. He lost.

Hopefully this debate was also a preview of what to expect on November 8th.

Sally Kohn, a CNN political commentator, is an activist and columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. She supports Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

Haroon Moghul: America’s sacred values reduced to strategy

Haroon Moghul
PHOTO: Courtesy of Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul

This third and final contest was Hillary Clinton’s best. Addressing Donald Trump’s record of misogyny, she spoke with a passion we do not hear from her often enough. Trump had his ultimate chance to show our country that he’s not who he appears to be. Unfortunately, what you see and what you hear is what you get.

Notably, American Muslims lost last night. Secretary Clinton called on our country to “work with American Muslims communities who are on the front lines.” This is the wrong response to Donald Trump’s discrimination. White Americans don’t deserve rights because, or whether, they speak out against white supremacism. And neither does anyone else.

American democracy lost, too.

Asked about the peaceful transition of power, Trump said he could not absolutely guarantee he’d accept the outcome of the vote on November 8th. He said, instead, he’d “keep [us] in suspense.” Later, Clinton compared Trump’s attacks on the democratic process to his conviction that the Emmys were rigged.

Our most sacred values reduced to a crass, tacky negotiating strategy. What was Trump trying to say, anyway? Was he telegraphing an intention of insurrection? That’s one bad hombre.

The planet lost, too. In three debates, we haven’t had a single question on climate change. ISIS is a bigger national security threat than the warming of the entire planet? To quote Donald Trump, who did a great Alec Baldwin impression tonight: “wrong.”

Haroon Moghul is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy. His next book, “How to be a Muslim,” will be out in 2017.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Is democracy really up for debate?