News analysis

Candidates failed to rebrand themselves during debates

Heading into the first of the three presidential debates last month, analysts said the winner of the series would be the one who did a better job of personal rebranding.

Republican nominee Donald Trump needed to prove that he had the temperament to hold the highest office, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had to show that her reputation as an impersonal, calculating politician was ill-deserved.

As they walked off the stage in Las Vegas yesterday, both candidates left their missions unaccomplished. Although both had their moments, the clashes did as much to reaffirm their weaknesses as to highlight their strengths.

This means that whoever wins the Nov 8 election will struggle to be a unifying figure for the country.

Indeed, the candidates seemed focused solely on their base and uninterested in winning over undecided voters. This was especially notable in the case of Mr Trump. He entered the second and third debates lagging in the polls and needing to appeal to people outside his base. Yet he turned down every opportunity to do so.

When asked by a Muslim woman during the second debate how he would battle Islamophobia , he responded by claiming that Muslims do not report terror activity that they see. Answering a question from an African-American, he doubled down on the perception of the black community as crime-ridden.

Even in the do-or-die situation of the third debate, Mr Trump made no attempt reach out.

"His comments about waiting to see if he would accept the results, especially because his polls are dipping, make him seem like a poor sport," said University of Michigan director of debate Aaron Kall.

When Mr Trump stayed on message, he successfully drew attention to his rival's vulnerabilities. The revelations from hacked e-mails reinforced the impression that the Clintons had engaged in a variety of shady backroom dealings.

He also found an effective line of attack in stressing his outsider status, accusing Mrs Clinton of achieving little during her 30 years in public service.

"I say the one thing you have over me is experience, but it's bad experience," he said in the third debate, in a reboot of a line that worked in the second one.

Mrs Clinton, with a fair bit of help from her rival, succeeded in sowing further doubt about whether he is suitable for the White House.

Whether it was his treatment of women, his failure to release his tax returns or an apparent susceptibility to mild provocation, voters who questioned Mr Trump's character found little to be reassured about. Even as he improved with each debate, Mr Trump never worked out a good way to respond to attacks on his approach to women, just as Mrs Clinton never found an effective way to address her e-mail scandal.

But even without ever making herself more relatable, Mrs Clinton definitely leaves the debate series the happier of the two.

Thanks largely to a dominating performance against an unprepared, inexperienced Mr Trump in the first debate, the polls swung in her favour early on. Then a nightmare fortnight for Mr Trump that included sexual assault allegations against him by nine women gave her all the momentum. Mr Trump never found - or didn't really try to find - a way to change the narrative.

Mrs Clinton has had her own share of scandals over the past month, like leaked e-mails showing her campaign staff in poor light, but she has minimised the damage by not speaking about those issues more than is necessary.

There is little to suggest that the days ahead will prompt the candidates to overhaul their campaign styles. Few expect Mr Trump to belatedly make a case to a broader American public after refusing to do so in the debates. Mrs Clinton, meanwhile, has a polling lead big enough for her to avoid taking risks.

Ultimately, the debates will likely be remembered for their ugliness. But if there one thing the on-stage duels tell us about the remaining weeks of campaigning, it is that the outcome of the election - like the debates - will be decided not by who makes himself or herself more likeable, but who makes the other more unlikeable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2016, with the headline 'Both candidates leave rebranding mission unaccomplished'. Print Edition | Subscribe