From the beginning of the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump has faced a nagging question: Does he have the right temperament to be commander-in-chief?
He's brash, he's entertaining, he's thin-skinned – none of which disqualify him, in the eyes of many voters, from sitting in the big chair and making the big decisions. But on Monday night, the Republican presidential nominee faced the toughest test yet in his highly anticipated first debate against Democrat Hillary Clinton: Could he go toe-to-toe against an experienced political debater and come across as a plausible president?
The bar was low, and Trump began the debate strongly. The billionaire scored points against Clinton on the economy, jobs, and trade. "We're losing our good jobs," Trump said, reinforcing a theme that has propelled him to a commanding lead among non-college-educated white men – and a virtual tie in the overall race.
But soon enough, the temperament issue reared its head as Trump began interrupting and at times, shouting. According to Vox.com, Trump interrupted Clinton 25 times in the first 26 minutes, and by the end, had interrupted her three times as often as she had interrupted him, 51 to 17.
'I have a winning temperament'
Finally, the meta became the explicit, when Trump raised the issue of temperament himself.
"I have much better judgment than she does," he said, talking about Clinton's vote for the Iraq war as a senator. "There's no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?"
Laughter rang out from audience, despite debate ground rules that forbade audience reaction.
Trump doubled down.
"I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament," he said. "I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not."
It was the most-tweeted-about moment of the debate, according to Hollywood Reporter. "When 'I have the right temperament' gets the biggest house laugh, it's not going your way," tweeted Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Clinton soon came back to the topic, when discussion turned to US-Iran relations, and Trump's statement last week that he would shoot Iranian vessels "out of the water" if they bothered American ships.
"That is not the right temperament to be commander-in-chief," Clinton said.
Online dictionary searches of 'temperament' surge
Merriam-Webster.com reports that the exchange sent viewers to their dictionaries, and that look-ups of the word "temperament" spiked. Inquiries were 78 times higher than the site’s usual hourly average.
But the meaning of temperament is easier sensed than described. Merriam-Webster’s definition is “the usual attitude, mood, or behavior of a person or animal.” That, it seems, could mean anything.
In a political context, a presidential temperament could refer to prudence, wisdom, and restraint. Trump's outsize personality, and his willingness to say things other politicians wouldn’t dare, has struck some voters as a breath of fresh air in an era when most politicians play it safe and speak in poll-tested sound bites.
Trump's rhetoric – at times "politically incorrect," in his view – set him apart from the rest of the GOP primary field and helped him to the party's presidential nomination.
Some Republicans still unconvinced
But now he's playing for the presidency itself, and his tone and comportment have emerged as major sticking points for some voters. And there remain loyal Republicans who would like to support their party's nominee, but still aren't there yet – voters Trump needs to win in November.
One such voter, Richard Bonomo, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, watched the debate closely but after it was over, did not indicate a readiness to commit to Trump.
"Trump held his own," Mr. Bonomo said in an email. "Clinton did get in several very good points, but her record of lying makes it difficult to accept uncritically just anything she says."
Overnight polls showed Clinton as the "winner" of the debate, but post-debate polls can be fleeting and don't predict the ultimate outcome of a presidential race.
"It was a fiery debate that won't move a lot of votes," says Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "So all eyes will be focused on the second debate. Remember, voters are grading the candidates differently. Trump has the momentum in the polls, and therefore he just has to be plausible in the Oval Office. Which he was."
Still, he acknowledges that Clinton scored points, noting how she put Trump on the defensive about his refusal to release his tax returns and on "birtherism" – Trump's longtime questioning of whether President Obama was born in the United States, which he only recently said was a settled issue.
"The good news for Trump is that he went toe-to-toe with Secretary Clinton on the debate stage, which elevated his legitimacy as a candidate – something especially crucial when you are the challenger party candidate," Mr. O'Connell said. "As we move on to the second debate, look for both candidates to tweak their tactics – particularly Trump."
Indeed, Trump's biggest failing in the debate may have been his many missed opportunities. He didn't go after Clinton for calling half of Trump supporters a "basket of deplorables." He also skipped the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, and Clinton's ties to Wall Street.
Clinton, for her part, can be expected to continue to pound Trump on his range of vulnerabilities, including his temperament, his business record, and his comments about women and minorities.
In the business world, "half of the money spent on marketing is wasted; we just don’t know which half," says David Redlawsk, chairman of the political science department at the University of Delaware, Newark. "It's the same with information flows in a campaign. We know they matter somewhere, but it's hard to know which matter."