5 reasons Trump's final debate performance sealed his 2016 coffin
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Last night’s debate was easily the least anticipated of the cycle and with good reason. History shows that the final presidential debate has minimal impact on the electoral outcome. Clinton has opened up a nearly insurmountable lead over Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE. And Trump has dropped traditional campaigning, while embracing fringe conspiracy theories.

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Still, this debate was not without intrigue or suspense. These are the five key ways that Clinton outmaneuvered Trump and closed with her strongest debate yet:

1. Trump Blew His One Chance.

Yes, the Donald Trump who showed up tonight was more poised and prepped than in the last two debates. Admittedly, it was a very low bar. While he made some compelling arguments — about the human toll of trade deals like NAFTA, for one — these moments were overshadowed by a series of conspiracy theory-driven answers and unforced errors.

His refusal to commit to accepting the election results, along with his unprompted praise for murderous strong men like Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin played to Trump’s biggest weakness with voters: that he doesn’t have the temperament or judgment to serve as commander-in-chief. To paraphrase Eminem, he only had one shot and he missed his chance to blow.

2. Clinton Connected, Delivered for Liberals.

There’s no doubt that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' Hillary Clinton praises former administration officials who testified before House as 'gutsy women' Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart MORE knows the ins and outs of every policy issue. She’s demonstrated that in debate after debate. Tonight, however, was the first debate where she put a human face on the high stakes of this election — and embraced unapologetically progressive policies in the process.

When talking about the politically risky issue of late-term abortions, she cited the stories of women she’s met with who have had to make the tough decision — the “worst possible choice” in her words — to end a pregnancy in its late stages for health- and life-saving reasons.

When asked about immigration reform — an issue on which Donald Trump has stoked xenophobic fears — she spoke of U.S. born children fearing their parents’ deportation, and illustrated what Trump’s deportation task force would entail: “law enforcement officers … going school to school, home to home, business to business rounding up people who are undocumented,” noting that such a policy would “rip our country apart.”

And on the issue of Syrian refugees, she invoked the heart-breaking image of Omran Daqneesh, the blood-soaked and soot-covered Syrian boy who became the international face of conflict-torn Aleppo, and asserted that she would not “slam the door on women and children” seeking refuge from violence and famine.

With these answers, Clinton deviated from her carefully scripted, poll-tested talking points, emoted, and showed progressives why she is a candidate worth fighting for.

3. Clinton’s Punches Landed, Trump's Offended.

Much has been made about the groan-inducing zingers from Clinton-Kaine team this election cycle. “Trumped-up Trickle Down Economics,” anyone? Tonight, Clinton came armed with some killer lines that were memorable and completely disarmed Trump — the master of the counterpunch.

From dropping how Putin would “rather have a puppet” as president, to contrasting how she was in the situation room during the bin Laden raid while Trump was judging “Celebrity Apprentice,” to countering Trump’s line about his “beautiful hotel” with a line that it was constructed with Chinese steel, Clinton rendered Trump speechless, exposed his lack of seriousness, and unmasked his hypocrisy.

In contrast, Trump’s attempts to attack Clinton — calling her a “nasty woman,” for one — fell flat and seemed more befitting of a schoolyard bully than a candidate for president.

4. Optimism Trumps Pessimism.

This campaign has flipped the script on stereotypes about how Republicans and Democrats supposedly view America. From President George W. Bush’s campaign’s insinuations that John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate John Kerry calls out lack of climate questions at debate MORE seemed “French” to Mitt Romney’s widely debunked charge that President Obama went on a global “apology tour,” Republicans have tried for years to claim the mantle of patriotic, pro-America warriors. That’s why last night’s debate was so striking.

While Trump painted a dystopian view of America with his proclamations about our “depleted military” and “inner cities (that) are a disaster,” Clinton adopted a decidedly more optimistic view, emphasizing how “America is great because America is good.”

Recent elections in the United Kingdom and Germany may have shown the allure of doomsday campaign messaging, but the American people have always shunned pessimistic imagery — Carter’s “malaise” and “crisis of confidence,” as Exhibit A — in favor of American exceptionalism.

5. Issues — and Issue Mastery — Matter.

The 2016 election has been the most policy-free campaign in modern history. Whereas previous campaigns have centered around policy debates, the most dominant topics in this election have been Clinton’s mishandling of her email server and allegations of Trump’s history of sexual assault. Both are worthy of scrutiny, but not at the expense of what agenda each candidate would pursue as president.

While too many important issues went unexplored during these three presidential debates — climate change, criminal justice reform, and LGBT rights, to name a few — last night’s debate put a bigger spotlight on issues and allowed Clinton to shine.

From how she’d choose Supreme Court justices to her dissection of potential gun safety regulations and their impact, array of ideas to change the tax code and grow the U.S. economy, and detailed knowledge of complex foreign policy issues — she, at many times, looked like a presidential candidate on stage next to a college debater.

The final presidential debate didn’t change the trajectory of the 2016 race. Close observers of the campaign learned very little new. But it reinforced an important narrative for Clinton — that she, unlike Donald Trump, can be trusted to serve as commander in chief — and threw a bone or two to the less-than-enthusiastic progressive base.

Smith is a Democratic strategist & co-founder of 50 State Communications. She served as the deputy campaign manager for Martin O'Malley's presidential campaign.


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