Presidential Campaign

Pundits react: Who won the final debate, Clinton or Trump?

The Hill asked some of its Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan contributors to assess the third and final debate between nominees Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R). Here’s what they had to say.




Brad Bannon

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Thank God! The debates and our long national nightmare are finally over.

Trump performed better in the third debate than he did in the first two rounds. He was remarkably restrained. (Well, at least most of the time.)

He almost seemed presidential. But it wasn’t enough to eliminate Clinton’s big lead in the polls.

Clinton is a skilled debater. When she answers questions from the moderator, she often starts with a personal story. When she attacks Trump, she does it with a smile on her face.

{mosads}Trump needed a knockout punch, but he didn’t lay a glove on his opponent. Before the debate, Clinton’s lead in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls was 6.5 percentage points. Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said that the Democratic nominee might win more than 400 electoral votes.

So Trump had to draw blood from Clinton tonight — but he didn’t.

The third debate was Trump’s last stand and he fell short.

Bannon is CEO of Bannon Communications Research, which works with progressive groups, labor unions and Democratic candidates. He contributes regularly to two nationally syndicated progressive talk radio shows, “The Leslie Marshall Show” and “The Jeff Santos Show.” Bannon is also political analyst for CLTV, the cable news station of the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV and a senior adviser to and contributing editor for, the social media network for politics.


Brent Budowsky

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Clinton won the debate. Trump made a devastating mistake when he refused to say he would respect and accept the election results if he does not win.

Clinton appeared presidential, knowledgeable and authoritative, and appeared strong and coherent. She scored especially well with liberals, Hispanics and women, but also presented herself in a substantive and reasoned way that will appeal to undecided voters.

Trump succeeded with his core supporters, but did nothing to expand his support and probably alienated many swing voters, women and Hispanics. Trump entered the debate behind Clinton and left the debate weaker with time running out.

Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the election result keeps him so far outside American values that public reaction could be devastating.

In the next 48 hours, many leading Republicans will join Democrats in a firestorm against Trump’s views about this.

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and former Chief Deputy Majority Whip Bill Alexander (D-Ark.). He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. Contact him at


Former Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.)

Winner: Hillary Clinton

About 70 minutes in, the big moment arrived when Trump said he would not agree to accept the election results but “will look at it at the time.” Then he went on a rant about the rigged election.

Hopefully, this doomed Trump to replace Barry Goldwater as the gold standard of Republican election disasters.

Early on, the split screen showed a scowling Trump — so much for likability, which used to be an important factor in getting elected. Trump was composed for only about 30 minutes while Clinton was consistently under control.

Some memorable moments:

Clinton raised the Russian President Vladimir Putin issue and Trump started to get agitated. In response to moderator Chris Wallace’s question on foreign interference, Trump said he was against those actions, but then went on a rant about who knows what.

When Clinton raised the issue of Trump using Chinese steel, Trump never denied it.

When Clinton talked about her experience in a very effective manner, all Trump could do was pivot to his business.

And exactly who are the “bad hombres,” the folks Trump loves to insult?

You can’t make this up.

Ninety minutes in, Trump answered a question on entitlement reform with a rambling tirade against ObamaCare. So we ended with more nonsense from The Donald!

Clinton, though, ended with a positive message.

Regardless, thank God the debates are over.

Owens, a former member of Congress representing New York’s 21st District, is a partner in the firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley, PLLC, in Plattsburgh, N.Y.




Former Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.)

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Clinton didn’t hurt herself, and Trump didn’t help himself.

The Donald needed a game-changing result tonite — and he didn’t deliver one.

He needed to move the needle but, if he did anything, it was to move it toward Clinton once he confirmed his conspiracy-theory inner-self and refused to say he’d accept the results of the election.

Instead, he looked petulant, angry, grumpy and mean.

Did he not ever consider the power of non-verbal communication on live TV?

For 90 minutes, he did not look like someone with whom you’d trust the presidency. Instead, he was indeed still playing the cut-throat, cold boss on “The Apprentice.” That was good fun on reality television, but this is the actual real world and he did not look nor act like someone who should hold our highest office.

Hillary Clinton was the winner — of both the debate and the election.

LeBoutillier is a former Republican congressman from New York and is the co-host of “Political Insiders” on Fox News Channel, Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. He writes semi-regular pieces in the Contributors section on the “State of the 2016 Race.”


Matt Mackowiak

Winner: Donald Trump

Trump came into the debate reeling after the worst three weeks that any presidential nominee has ever sustained. It brings me no joy to admit it, but Trump decisively won the debate tonight. He won it on style and unexpectedly also on substance. He won it head to head and he won it compared to his first two debate performances.

He was sharp, disciplined, and even substantive Wednesday night.

Trump’s worst moment was refusing to commit to accept the election result, and that moment may very well come to define the entire debate.

Clinton’s best moment was when she spoke about the allegations made by women against Trump. She was pitch perfect in that answer.

Overall, Clinton was mediocre, using tired lines and recycled talking points for much of the night, with few memorable moments. I don’t think she did any damage to herself, but she certainly did not win tonight.

The net result tonight is that Trump finally stopped his disastrous three-week slide and I suspect he will gain back some ground as this race tightens again. Clinton remains the front-runner, with several plausible paths to 270 electoral votes, but Trump will now have some new momentum in the final 19 days.

Mackowiak is syndicated columnist; an Austin, Texas-based Republican consultant; and former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.


Rick Manning

Winner: Donald Trump

Trump showed the knowledge and resolve to perform the duties of the presidency of the United States. The operative question is, will America choose to continue along the same path or will voters elect a change in direction economically, socially and culturally?

Will voters accept an anemic 1 percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth as the new normal, with the resulting continued downward spiral of American prosperity? Will voters accept a continuing barrage of Washington regulations that tighten the economic noose around their future opportunities?

Will they accept having their taxpayer dollars used to fund an organization that sells the baby body parts of children ripped from the wombs of their mothers during late-term abortions?

Ironically, for all the high talk about the legitimacy of elections by Clinton, the just-released video proof from Project Veritas Action that her operatives paid people to disrupt Trump rallies and create violence against Trump supporters shows that it is Clinton and her team that disrespects the American political process, opting instead for a Third World approach to voter intimidation to gain power.

In the second video, a Clinton operative talking about how to perpetrate election fraud ought to send chills down everyone’s spine. Yet some want to harp on Trump’s refusal to give carte blanche approval in advance.

Combined with Clinton’s vehement opposition to the individual right to keep and bear arms that was revealed through her opposition to the District of Columbia v. Heller decision, and her continued assault on the First Amendment through her plan to appoint justices who would repeal Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Democratic nominee is the most dangerous candidate in history when it comes to the future of individual liberties in America.

If possible, even more distressing was Clinton’s continued defense of her no-fly zone idea in Syria, an idea rejected by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as possibly leading to direct war with Russia.

Incredibly, when confronted by this fact, she did not back down from her nuclear brinksmanship, but somehow tried to create a fantasy world where she would negotiate a deal with Syria and Russia to allow the U.S. to control Syrian airspace.

Only Clinton has now twice threatened escalating Syria to a military confrontation with Russia, demonstrating that she is the one who cannot be trusted with her finger on the nuclear button.

After the Las Vegas debate, Clinton has got to be wishing that what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas, because Trump emerged from the stage as the only choice for president in 2016.

Manning is a longtime conservative political professional who remains active in his local Republican Party.



Ford O’Connell

Winner: Donald Trump

What started out polite quickly turned into a Sin City slugfest.

Trump had his strongest debate performance, without question. He bested Clinton on the economy, foreign policy, open borders and WikiLeaks, and had her scrambling for cover on the Clinton Foundation.

Trump also did a good job of talking to #NeverTrumpers when it came to the Supreme Court, particularly on the subjects of partial birth abortion and the Second Amendment.

But when you are trailing in the polls as Trump is, what you don’t need is a headline the day after the debate questioning whether you will accept the election results or a potential Clinton ad running on a loop in key battleground states featuring his “such a nasty woman” comment.

Those misguided political calculations risk overshadowing an otherwise great debate performance by Trump.

Bottom line: He needed more of a game-changer with 19 days to go until Election Day.

O’Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, an adjunct professor at George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is author of the book “Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery.”




Bernie Quigley

Winner: Donald Trump

Trump won the debate because prior to Wednesday night, it seemed impossible for him to be elected president in 2016. As of this third debate, the possibility of a Trump presidency enters once again into the world of the possible.

After more than 10 minutes into the debate, Trump made a strong detailed statement on his support of his pro-life position, saying that yes, he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would seek to repeal Roe v. Wade and repeated after several challenges that he would also send the issue back to the states. Showing support of states’ rights early in the debate — a key issue in a new conservative vein rising today in America — placed him more soundly in context as a new conservative than he has seemed before. He stated his opinion with a natural authority.

In contrast, Clinton was pedantic in her discussion of Planned Parenthood, running on to make reference to forced abortions in Romania.

Clinton was unconvincing in her support for the Second Amendment and limiting immigration. Her eyes kept dropping and she appeared to be reading policy documents from the podium. Her tendency to go on hostile attacks and suddenly break away into a wide, cold smile was unnerving. Talking over moderator Chris Wallace on questions of the Clinton Foundation, she appeared almost manic. It emphasized and brought back a dark side of Clinton, which we have seen before.

Trump successfully (uncharacteristically) played the rope-a-dope, a strategy pioneered by Muhammad Ali in a 1974 ring fight, holding back against the ropes and letting her go on. It worked.

Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children. Contact him at


Tom Squitieri

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Forget the polls. After all this time, it is still about the 3 to 5 percent true undecideds, especially in the key states. And like any good boxing match in Las Vegas — where the debate took place — the two were close in the opening rounds. Clinton was more aggressive, Trump less: both wise strategies to reach that 3 to 5 percent.

Then it changed.

Trump fell back into his old patterns and Clinton displayed a lighter, yet more lethal, touch in zinging. Her “puppet as president” line started the shift and her balanced attack that used both mockery (noting how Trump declared the Emmys to be rigged, or that the Trump Tower in Vegas was made with Chinese steel) and clarity in standing for women certainly will further reinvigorate her supporters.

Trump did well in restoring faith among conservatives and, benefiting from a friendly moderator, forced Clinton to address some issues that remain in the craw of many voters, including the undecideds.

In another time, his “bad hombres” line might have gotten appreciative smiles. But he needed a knockout to move the needle. He also had to not raise more controversy about himself, which he did with his near-end-of-the-debate “nasty woman” comment and his stunning refusal to agree to honor the results of the election.

No knockout by either side. But Clinton won on two of the three scorecards.

Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at American University and Washington and Jefferson College.



The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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