Presidential debate analysis: Gender played a bigger role in the than you may think
October 11, 2016
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Did he call her "secretary" as a sign of respect or condescension? What about the interruptions? And the matter of her looks or lack of stamina? And then there was "Miss Piggy."
Questions about gender ran throughout Monday night's general election presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the first ever between a man and a woman.
Almost every move could be scrutinized through that lens — Trump interrupting Clinton 46 times to her five, by McClatchy's count; how he refocused moderator Lester Holt's question of Trump's claim Clinton didn't look presidential; Trump's hinting he'd planned to use former President Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct against her before thinking better of it.
Trump campaign officials dismissed talk that gender was a factor, noting Trump often aggressively interrupted and insulted male opponents during the Republican primaries.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Trump adviser, insisted Clinton had interrupted Trump as many times as he did her Monday — despite the count showing otherwise.
"I think that was fair and warranted," she said of Trump's interruptions. "That's not a problem for women at all. I think women care less about debate tactics than the economy, national security. They want to know, 'Are my kids going to have a job? Are they going to be safe?' That's what women care about."
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What to call her
Trump made not a single mention of "Crooked Hillary," the nickname he's wielded to describe her on the campaign trail.
"I thought he was in part a little hands-off," said Annelise Orleck, author of "Rethinking American Women's Activism. "I wondered if he had watched her debate against Rick Lazio. Maybe that's why he was so restrained."
Before "mansplaining" ever became a term, there was the 2000 Senate debate in New York between Clinton and then-Rep. Lazio, R-N.Y. The Long Island congressman stepped away from his lectern during the debate, walked directly over to Clinton's and repeatedly urged her to sign a pledge to reject soft-money campaign contributions. It proved a tactical error that many viewed as overly aggressive and sexist.
Lazio himself offered Trump a piece of advice ahead of the debate: "Stay at the podium."
Still, others saw signs of sexism, including early in the debate when Trump asked Clinton how she felt about him referring to her as "Secretary Clinton," an acknowledgment of her tenure as President Barack Obama's first secretary of state.
"Yes, is that OK?" Trump asked Clinton. "Good. I want you to be very happy. It's very important to me."
Charles Bierbauer, a former political and foreign correspondent for CNN, called Trump's question a wince-inducing moment.
"That was condescending, no question about that," Bierbauer said. "Neither one wants the other to be happy."
In the end, Trump referred to Clinton as "secretary" 22 times during the course of the evening, but stopped toward debate's end, when he called her "Hillary" eight times.
Clinton referred to Trump by his first name throughout the debate rather than "Mr. Trump." Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton's communications director, noted that "he likes people who work for him to call him Mr. Trump, but she doesn't work for him."
Who has the stamina?
Clinton looked as if she had Trump when Holt asked him to elaborate on his remarks earlier this month that Clinton didn't look presidential. Apparently sensing trouble, Trump declined to talk about Clinton's appearance, veering instead to a question of stamina.
"She doesn't have the look. She doesn't have the stamina," Trump said. "I said she doesn't have the stamina. And I don't believe she does have the stamina. To be president of this country, you need tremendous stamina."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a Clinton supporter, said Trump tried to change the critique because he realized he would box himself in by repeating that Clinton doesn't look presidential.
"He didn't want to acknowledge that there really isn't a good reason to say that, other than the obvious issue that she's the first one that would be a woman," McCaskill said. "He pivoted to stamina, but that didn't save him. I think he was already down the rabbit hole and he had a hard time getting back out."
Clinton quickly pivoted, too, reminding the Hofstra University audience and TV viewers of what he's called women before. She admonished him for his comment about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, recalling that "he called this woman 'Miss Piggy.' Then he called her 'Ms. Housekeeping,' because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name."
Clinton told Trump that the Venezuelan-born beauty queen recently became a U.S. citizen and "you can bet … she's going to vote this November."
Shortly after the debate, Clinton's campaign released a video featuring Machado discussing her treatment by Trump, along with a transcript of the debate exchange.
Trump appeared to catch himself following Clinton's Machado salvo. He said he could have been "extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, 'I just can't do it. It's inappropriate. It's not nice.'"