The debate’s merits are almost beside the point.
George H.W. Bush once threw his microphone into the air, famously said “no more Mr. Nice Guy” and lost a presidency to Bill Clinton.
Bob Dole uttered the epithet “stupidity” and lost to Bill Clinton.
Polls show that Clinton and Donald Trump were neck and neck heading into the last debate. If either man came off as less of a “monster” than the other, that could seal the deal, allowing one or the other to seal the deal.
What really mattered was the style. How the candidates conducted themselves, and the behavior of the spectators who watched them at home, would likely matter to millions of voters, the undecideds who may decide the outcome.
For a week, the arguments raged among pollsters and analysts as to how low, and how high, Trump’s likability would sink. The debate seemed designed to lower his likability to something like unfavorability or even unpopularity. But it didn’t quite happen. He was likable, and a little watchful, with the eye of a politician. He played it cool. When Clinton came at him, he responded with more of a canned response, responding with calls for respect. He was conciliatory.
For his part, Clinton was the great TV performer. He delivered a carefully planned performance, timed to a strict 20-minute time limit, punctuated with occasional eruptions of anger. He won the moment when he eviscerated Trump over “heart attack.” At the end, he turned down his microphone and waved off Trump’s attempt to continue the discussion.
For all the campaign speculation about who won and lost, the debate, as always, truly was about style.
Read more: Here’s How to Prepare to Watch the Final Presidential Debate