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2016 Presidential Debate

In some ways, the audience enjoyed a far livelier spectacle, with much less gravitas and far more showmanship than American voters have been accustomed to from previous debates, and with media hoopla, commentary and posturing by the candidates (or at least by one of them) that would more typically be expected in a bout staged by the WWE.

The long awaited first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was held last week drawing a massive television audience estimated at more than 85 million, plus millions more watching through live-streaming on the Internet, which made it by far and away the largest domestic audience ever in the 65 year history of televised presidential debates. In some ways, the audience enjoyed a far livelier spectacle, with much less gravitas and far more showmanship than American voters have been accustomed to from previous debates, and with media hoopla, commentary and posturing by the candidates (or at least by one of them) that would more typically be expected in a bout staged by the WWE.

Pundits and commentators awarded this first round to Clinton by a near unanimous decision. The general consensus of the fourth estate was that Trump’s performance started out reasonably well but steadily deteriorated over the course of the evening, as he proved unable to restrain himself from taunting and hectoring interruptions of Clinton, and prone to rambling digressions, at times verging on incoherence in his responses. Clinton came off as far more in command of herself and the issues, at times landing a few direct verbal blows on her opponent, while managing to maintain a far more presidential demeanor.

And yet in an election year that has constantly upended the conventional wisdom and in which Trump has repeatedly rebounded from gaffes and missteps that would derail a more conventional candidate, it remains unclear how the US electorate will respond to the candidates’ performances. In the run-up to the debate there had been a noticeable tightening of the polls, with some calling the race a dead heat. Even while Trump’s performance seemed underwhelming and uneven, he repeatedly harped on the themes of law and order and protecting American jobs from unfair trade agreements, very much focused on wooing white-working class voters in key swing states, where the election’s outcome will most certainly be determined.

Perhaps the clearest indication of how the candidates performed came from an unlikely source – the foreign currency markets – where the Mexican peso staged a huge rally in the aftermath of the candidates’ first television showdown. Prior to the debate analysts had noted that Trump’s steady rise in the polls earlier in September had been accompanied by a collapse in the Peso against the Dollar, as Mexico’s currency plunged to an all time low of 20 to 1, having fallen by 12% since the beginning of the year. And yet on Tuesday morning the Peso rallied back strongly, gaining as much as 2.3% as trading opened, buoyed by the perception that Trump was now that much less likely to be in position to build his wall, let alone to be able to compel Mexico to pay for it.

The reaction in other parts of the world has been equally telling, demonstrating that the spectacle of the US presidential has been drawing a rapt audience far beyond the US borders. Media throughout Asia have been paying close attention to what one leading Korean newspaper calls the “Trump phenomenon” that has taken root in America. As one Korean columnist observed: “Even if Clinton is elected in this battle for “who is the least unlikable person” this does not seem like an issue that will be quickly resolved, with another Trump perhaps likely to emerge in 2020 or 2024.”

The Chinese press has also been issuing some trenchant observations, with Chinese commentators for once glad to be delivering criticism about the shortcomings and foibles of the American electoral system. In the words of an op-ed piece published in WenXueCity: “Millions of people have been driven by the media to take strong stands in opposition to Trump. If Obama doesn’t intervene or call off the election, and if Trump ends up winning, then nationwide chaos will likely occur. And if Hillary wins the election, then a civil war may ensue or worse.”

Not all the commentary has been quite so melodramatic in tone, but nonetheless a wide range of voices in the Chinese press seem to be noting that this year the tone and flavor of US presidential politics seems truly different. For example, in a thoughtful piece published in XinHua News, Professor Wang Yiwei from Renmin DaXue observes that this year’s presidential contest is unfolding at an unusual time, as “a disorderly election in a disorderly world.” One of the typical important functions of the US presidential election, as Professor Wang sees it, has been to promote US influence throughout the world through the “soft-power” of America’s much heralded democracy. But this election cycle represents a departure from the 20th century norm. Instead, as Professor Wang describes it, the focus of the US presidential contest has shifted from “how to lead” to “whether to lead” the world, which underscores a fundamental change in international relations.

As Clinton herself commented during the debate, both trying to reassure American voters as well as American allies and observers throughout the world: “Let me start by saying words matters. Words matter when you run for president, and they really matter when you are president. We have mutual defense treaties, and we will honor them. It is essential that America’s word be good.”

No matter what the outcome of the election, it remains to be seen just what sort of lasting effect all the heated rhetoric of this unusual campaign will have – both on the future governability of American democracy as well as the continuity of American leadership in the rest of the world.

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