First things first: Under any definition of "winning" that goes beyond "did Donald Trump manage to stay coherent and under control for a single 90 second span", Hillary Clinton won this debate hands down. There's simply no question. No, Donald Trump did not spontaneously combust in a paroxysm of rage (though there were a few moments where I genuinely wondered if he was having a panic attack). Yes, he did manage to emphasize a few effective tropes, such the alleged mismatch between Clinton's rhetoric now and her record of accomplishment. But the overall effect was of a blustering, out of his league lunatic who could not stop interrupting, could not stop snorting, could not stop eye-rolling, and for much of the evening could barely string two coherent sentences together. That's just not going to fly on this level.
Of course, I'm biased -- but even the Republicans I've seen have scored the debate either a Clinton win or, at best, a draw. Their main complaint, of course, is to blame the refs -- the moderator, we're told, was biased! They point out that far less time was spent on Clinton's emails than on Trump's birtherism.
You want to know why that is? It's because Clinton's answer on emails was simple: she acknowledged a mistake, and left it at that. No attempt at a convoluted justification, no complaints that the whole thing was blown out of proportion, no conspiracy theory about how it was all in her opponent's head. And if you contrast that to Trump, you get what might have been his biggest problem all night: he could not let anything go. Birtherism? It was all Clinton's fault, and Trump actually did Obama a favor! Iraq war? An endless stream of consciousness demanding that we call Sean Hannity to verify that he was too an opponent. Racial discrimination? "We never admitted any guilt," and by the way, did I tell you about the time my club admitted Black people? It reached a peak when Trump started going off on how actually he had the better "temperament" compared to Clinton, and I was like "really dude? Is this the hill you want to die on?" Even Trump's supporters must have been groaning.
Clinton performed well because she actually possesses some self-discipline and was able to blunt potential problem areas early, sucking the air out of the issue. Trump was like a frenzied chihuahua on Adderall, chasing down anything and everything and hobbling himself with assertions that ranged from ludicrous (everything was "the worst deal ever") to self-sabotaging (did he just admit he paid no federal taxes?). And I have to think that every single woman watching that debate had their blood pressure rise in empathy each time Donald Trump insisted on talking over the calm, collected, prepared woman next to her.
The only thing that seems to be causing people to hesitate in awarding Clinton a total victory is the idea that "Trump is different." We thought he got eviscerated in the primary debates too, and his people loved him even more for it. I saw Nicolle Wallace make that point on NBC, and Kevin Drum said the same in his recap. To that, I simply observe that the GOP primary is not the general, and the same rules don't apply. GOP primary rules get you Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell. General election rules get those candidates annihilated as independents flee in terror.
This debate was the first time Americans really got a chance to see their 2016 choices side-by-side. It presented a stark choice, and not a particularly difficult one. I predict that when the full reactions are in, independents and swing voters will not react kindly to what Trump was selling.