As both Trump and Clinton try to convince swing voters and undecideds to come their way, both have pivoted at least their tones, if not positions, on certain policy position, as Richard Wagner explains.

In our two party system, it’s a standard tactic to appeal to your party base for the party nomination, then shift to the middle for the General Election.  Even Trump, despite the significant challenge he poses to the GOP status quo, must follow this strategy to avoid a landslide defeat.  After seeing the Final Presidential Debate, I’d like to highlight a few pivots from both candidates to help voters make a more informed choice.

Gun Control

While Trump has in the past supported substantial gun control, he’s been pretty consistent in supporting the NRA positions since he decided to run for President.  This was likely a calculation on his part, as it’s a prerequisite that if you hope to be nominated by the Republican Party, you must oppose nearly all gun control proposals.

Clinton, however, has pivoted at least in her tone during this election cycle.  In the primaries, Clinton couldn’t get enough of attacking Bernie Sanders for his history of being more nuanced on gun control and exclaiming, “it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”  Now, in the General Election, Clinton seems more eager to emphasize that she does support the right to bear arms.  When asked about the 2nd amendment by moderator Chris Wallace, Clinton’s started by emphasizing, “I support the second amendment.”  She sounded a little more Jimmy Carter, a little less Martin O’Malley.  Her proposals were very modest, such as closing the “gun show loophole”, universal background checks, and supporting DC’s efforts (according to her) to simply protect toddlers by requiring parents to safely store their firearms.  In the Primaries, Jim Webb was the most pro-gun Democrat, and even he’d agree to this.

So, not much change from Trump, but more significant change from Clinton on gun control.


On this, we saw the pivot come from Trump.  Hillary Clinton has consistently supported a blend of border security, deportation only of undocumented residents who have committed some other crime, and keeping families together.  

Trump, however, has softened his tone.  We all remember his “build a wall” and deport them all rhetoric.  He stands by the wall.  But many forget that in his original “wall” speech, he also emphasized that the big beautiful wall would have a “big beautiful door”.  

When asked by Wallace about immigration reform, Trump started by accusing Hillary Clinton of supporting “amnesty”.  He also discussed the dangers of drug trafficking.  But as Trump continued, he started emphasizing his desire to work with Mexico on this, and also making it easier for Mexicans and others to enter the US legally.  “We have millions of people that did it the right way. They’re on line. They’re waiting. We’re going to speed up the process bigly, because it’s very inefficient.”  Trump loves legal immigrants so much he invented a new word for what he will do for them – “bigly.”  But seriously, in the primary, Trump’s harsher tone on immigration likely appealed to those who really are anti-immigration.  Now, Trump is emphasizing that distinction between legal and illegal immigration, and promoting legal immigration.  


Hillary Clinton is more nuanced on trade than Donald Trump.  Her husband is about the most “free trade” friendly president in US history.  Hillary Clinton officially supported her husband’s positions, but seems more cautious when it’s up to her.  For example, as Senator, Hillary did vote against CAFTA .  On the recent TPP in progress, Clinton has gone from calling it “the Gold Standard”, to opposing it “as written.”  This may be because Sanders was gaining on her in the primaries, in part due to this issue.  

Trump, breaking from the Republican Party establishment, has been very critical of “free trade” agreements.  However, he never said he was against trade in general.  In the primaries, trade was a yuuuge part of Trump’s platform.  He was constantly calling for tariffs, particularly against China.  He hasn’t changed any specific positions, but he has softened his tone, especially on Mexico.  

In Trump’s words, “I had a very good meeting with the President of Mexico. Very nice man. We will be doing very much better with Mexico on trade deals.”  

So, Clinton remains nuanced.  Trump did get her to commit to continued opposition to TPP if she wins.  (If she wins, I look forward to holding her to that.)  Trump is, however, placing more emphasis on negotiation better trade deals, and his tone at least is more favorable to trade than it seemed in the primaries.

Overall tone, and direction

Clinton didn’t really need to do much pivoting here.  She was a little more aggressive this time when the moderator would cut her off.  In the last debate, Trump did get slightly more talk time than Clinton, and she wants to show voters that she can be tough.  

For Trump, this was a yuuuuge pivot from the second debate.  I never wrote an analysis on that debate, but I can sum it up in a three words – Trump train wreck!  Trump has had some time to regroup, both emotionally, and with his campaign staff, and was clearly more prepared for this last debate.  Unlike the seasoned veteran Clinton, Trump has been learning on the fly.  He’s a much better advertiser than debater, which served him better in the primaries than it has in this General Election.  

You could see Trump restraining himself this time.  In the first debate, he frequently interrupted Hillary Clinton.  In the second debate, he was trying so hard not to that it looked like it was going to kill him.  Throughout that entire second debate, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders and didn’t know what to do with it.   This time, he interrupted Clinton about as frequently as she interrupted him.  The moderate, Chris Wallace, did let Trump walk over him a few times.  But Trump didn’t interrupt Clinton virtually every sentence, and only used his signature “wrong” maybe three times.  There were a few more times he silently lip-spoke “wrong”.  And he didn’t look like he was going to die from self-restraint.

The moderator – I give Chris Wallace a C

Chris Wallace himself, a generally fair man, I’d give a C+.  He tried to be fair, but needed to be firmer on Trump a few times.  As I’ve stated before, interrupting moderators and forcing a few more words in is normal at these debates.  But unlike Elaine Quijano in the VP debate, Wallace let Trump start calling the shots on a few occasions.  

If you’d like to confirm any of my quotes or paraphrase from the debate, here is a link to the full transcript

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...

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