Five things Trump can do to regain momentum
© Getty Images

Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIllinois governor says state has gotten 10 percent of medical equipments it's requested Biden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll Tesla offers ventilators free of cost to hospitals, Musk says MORE’s momentum has come to an abrupt halt after Monday’s presidential debate, where he was widely cast as the loser to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much GOP challenger seizes on outrage against Massie Juan Williams: Mueller, one year on MORE

The first polls in the days after the debate have shown movement in favor of the Democrat. And media coverage since the clash at Hofstra University has also exposed discontent within the Trump camp.

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump is still in a close race. Clinton leads by around 3 points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, and Trump is given almost a 40 percent chance of prevailing by forecasting site FiveThirtyEight.

But both those data points have moved in Clinton’s direction in recent days. Here are five things that Trump could do to try to re-establish momentum.

Stop talking about the debate

Trump is so loathe to admit that he lost the first debate that he has kept commenting on it, a tactic that has only kept it at the heart of the news agenda. Trump has complained about moderator Lester Holt of NBC "Nightly News" and his microphone, among other things. On Thursday, he suggested that the debate had been “rigged.”

None of this helps Trump. Nor do media stories about how difficult it was to get him to practice for the first encounter or about whether his preparations for the second encounter might be helmed by a high-profile figure such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. 

Trump isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about who won the debate at this stage. Every time he returns to the subject, he simply breathes more life into a negative story for his candidacy.

Hit the themes that worked

The first debate was a setback for Trump but not a catastrophe.

In its early stages, in particular, he went toe-to-toe with Clinton on free trade in a way that was widely seen as effective. Trump surrogates also argue that he scored points by portraying Clinton as part of the political status quo for three decades.

“He positioned himself very effectively as the candidate of change,” a senior policy adviser to the campaign, Peter Navarro, told The Hill the day after the debate.

If Trump could keep sounding that theme, rather than getting dragged back into debates about the debate, he would likely have more success in putting Clinton under pressure. The free trade issue, in particular, is potent in critical Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Get an assist from his running mate

Trump and Clinton’s running mates will meet for their sole debate before the principals clash again. 

The vice presidential debate will take place in Farmville, Va., on Tuesday.

Neither Trump’s vice-presidential pick, Indiana Gov Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceConstruction continues despite rising concerns over coronavirus Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Sheldon Adelson donating 2M masks to first responders: report MORE, nor his Democratic counterpart, Virginia Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineBiden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Students with disabilities could lose with COVID-19 stimulus package Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE, is over-endowed with charisma.

But a strong performance from Pence could settle nerves in the Trump camp. It would also provide a more favorable backdrop for the GOP nominee as he debates Clinton for the second time five days later.

Trump and Pence can take heart here from a 2012 precedent.

Four years ago, President Obama had a miserable first debate against GOP nominee Mitt Romney. But Vice President Biden performed very well against Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWho should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? The Pelosi administration It's not populism that's killing America's democracy MORE (R-Wis.) eight days later, helping to right the ship in advance of Obama’s comeback in the second and third encounters.

Flip the script

One of Trump’s most obvious, and undeniable, skills since his campaign began has been a capacity to drive news coverage — including finding some new way to grab headlines when a bad story or a rival’s rise threatened to envelop him during the Republican primary process.

He has — so far — failed to do that in the wake of the debate. As well as trying to talk up his own performance, he has also sought to defend remarks he made about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.

There are ways to change the subject — and not all of them involve igniting a new controversy so big as to erase the existing ones. 

One option is to deliver a major speech on some policy issue of choice. If Trump could do that, it would help him turn the page.

Do better next time

As of Friday morning, the next Clinton-Trump debate was only 9 days away. The GOP nominee simply has to perform better than he did at their initial encounter. That will mean more disciplined preparation before the debate and a better focus for its duration.

Whether Trump can pull that off remains to be seen. If he can’t, he will be on the receiving end of another deluge of negative media coverage at a critical point of a challenging race.